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Turkish pianist charged with insulting Islam

A Turkish court on Friday formally charged an internationally known pianist and composer with insulting Islamic religious values in comments he made on Twitter.

The court in Istanbul voted to approve an indictment against Fazil Say, who has played piano with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, National Orchestra of France and Tokyo Symphony.

The 42-year-old Turk faces charges of inciting hatred and public enmity, and insulting "religious values." Say, who has served as a culture ambassador for the European Union, allegedly mocked Islamic beliefs about paradise in April.

Meltem Akyol, a lawyer for Say, said the pianist has denied the charges. The trial will be held on Oct. 18, she said.

"We certainly do not accept the charges," Akyol said by telephone on Friday. "He has stated in his initial testimony during the probe that he had no intention to humiliate any religion. He was basically criticizing those who are exploiting religion for profit."

Akyol said Say's tweets and retweets on social media cannot be considered as public remarks because only people who follow him can see them. In one tweet cited in the indictment, Say said: "What if there is raki (traditional anisette drink) in paradise but not in hell, while there is Chivas Regal (scotch) in hell and not in paradise? What will happen then? This is the most important question!!"

Islam forbids alcohol and many Islamists might consider such remarks unacceptable. In one of the pianist's retweets, one excerpt questioned whether paradise was a "brothel?" according to the indictment.

Akyol claimed that line belonged to the wine-loving 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, most known for his work the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." But Murat Bardakci, a historian, wrote in HaberTurk newspaper in April that the alleged line did not belong to Khayyam.

"He was merely expressing his ideas within free speech," said Akyol, adding that the renowned artist was not seeking any privileges or immunity from prosecution.

Akyol, meanwhile, confirmed that Say closed his Twitter account before the court decision Friday, because he was annoyed with messages.

"He has lately incurred the wrath of some people," Akyol said. "He has even been receiving death threats."

Say had floated the idea of leaving Turkey and moving to Japan earlier this year, his lawyer said. The pianist was abroad and not available for comment. He was expected to return to Istanbul this weekend following a concert in Slovenia on Friday.

Say was the latest prominent Turk to run into trouble in the country for expressing his views. He could face a maximum 1 1/2 years in prison if he is convicted.

The European Union has long encouraged Turkey to improve freedom of speech if it wants to become a member one day.

Turkey's Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has been prosecuted for his comments about the mass killings of Armenians under a law that made it a crime to insult the Turkish identity before the government eased that law in an amendment in 2008.

In 2007, ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who received death threats because of his comments about the killings of Armenians by Turks in 1915, was shot dead outside his office in Istanbul.

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