CNN Wire
May 29, 2013 Wednesday 10:40 PM EST

By Emma Sinclair-Webb

Editor's note: Emma Sinclair-Webb is a senior Europe researcher at
Human Rights Watch who focuses on Turkey.

(CNN) -- Sevan Nisanyan, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, wrote a blog
entry last September stating that critical comments about religion
don't constitute hate speech. "Making fun of an Arab leader who
claimed he contacted God hundreds of years ago and received political,
financial and sexual benefits is not hate speech," he said. "It
is an almost kindergarten-level test of what is called freedom of

An Istanbul court disagreed and on May 22 -- for these very words --
sentenced him to 13 months in prison for "insulting the religious
values of one section of the population." What makes his prosecution
even more chilling is the fact that it followed public comments by
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag recommending that Nisanyan should
be prosecuted.

There have been dramatic developments in Turkey in recent months
as the government embarks on a bold attempt to end the entrenched
conflict with the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and to start
down the long road to peace with the Kurdish minority. While the sight
of uniformed and armed PKK fighters -- male and female -- retreating
to camps over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan is tangible evidence of
progress toward peace, the Turkish authorities and judiciary are
still cracking down on people who express dissent in words rather
than with an AK47.

One of Turkey's most fundamental human rights problems is in fact
intolerance of free speech. Politicians regularly sue journalists for
defamation. Editors and publishers are mostly unwilling to permit
much criticism of the government for fear of harming their bosses'
other business interests.

The largest group of people being prosecuted for criticizing the
government are accused of illegal political activism. The police,
prosecutors and courts label their activities "terrorism," despite
scant evidence of involvement in violence or material support to armed
resistance. A couple of thousand local Kurdish activists are in jail.

These are people who opted for non-violent political struggle in the
Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has members in parliament.

Among them are elected mayors, journalists, students and human rights
defenders, and many lawyers.

But not all of those targeted are even accused of terrorism. The
targets of this clampdown include people who offend the government
with satirical and even trivial criticisms.

Nisanyan's conviction, which he has appealed, followed the conviction
on April 15 of the well-known pianist Fazil Say, who received a
10-month suspended sentence on the same charge for several tweets and
retweets poking fun at Islam. The public was divided, as it was in
Nisanyan's case, but the real discussion should have been about whether
what either of the two men said actually threatened the public order,
amounted to hate speech or deserved to be restricted on those grounds.

The European Court of Human Rights has found over and over that Turkey
has violated free speech. But prosecutors, courts, and government
figures are still applying different standards to Turkey, muzzling
views they don't want to hear. Most recently, there has been the
spate of cases against people deemed to have denigrated the religious
sentiments of the Sunni Muslim majority.

On May 30, the feminist lawyer Canan Arin faces a trial hearing for
critical comments she made to lawyers at a meeting of the Antalya Bar
Association in 2011 on the subject of violence against women. She
homed in on the problem of early and forced marriage. After Arin
cited the Prophet Muhammad and President Abdullah Gul as examples of
men who married child brides, she was prosecuted both for "insulting
religious values" and "insulting the president." She faces a possible
five year prison sentence.

It is unlikely that any of these three will go to prison in the end,
but the fact that they were prosecuted at all demonstrates that the
political transformation of Turkey to a rights-respecting democracy
over the past decade is incomplete. The authorities have used the
criminal justice system to muzzle or punish criticism of the state
and official history throughout the republic. Rather than moving away
from this model, the present government seems to be happy to continue
the tradition by using the courts to fight a battle with anyone who
touches on the subject of religion in ways they don't like.

The political breakthrough with the PKK offers an important
chance of securing progress on human rights for all of Turkey's
people. But as jailed Kurdish political activists and critics facing
charges for offending someone in government have found out, that's
only part of what's needed to secure progress on human rights for
everyone. Moving toward a tolerant and democratic society also means
that the authorities and the courts need to stop trying to silence
their unarmed critics.

The views expressed are the writer's own.