By Can Sezer and Nick Tattersall
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish concert pianist Fazil Say's exuberance has won him fans around the world, but it has also helped land him in court as a cause célèbre for those alarmed by Turkey's creeping Islamic conservatism.
On trial for insulting religion in citing a thousand-year-old poem on his Twitter account, the 42-year-old performer and composer told a first brief hearing in Istanbul on Thursday that he denied the charge, which can carry an 18-month sentence.
As fellow artists crammed the courthouse in a show of support for Say, who performs with some of the world's leading orchestras, the case was adjourned for four months.
It was a retweet sent in April of a verse in which the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam mocks pious hypocrisy which led prosecutors to charge Say with "explicitly insulting religious values". Religious conservatives have become ever more assertive since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, which has roots in Islamist politics, swept to power a decade ago.
"I do not accept the accusations brought against me. I deny them," Say told the court, according to the official record. So packed was the small chamber within one of Istanbul's main court buildings that the crowd spilled out into narrow corridors outside, through courtroom doors thrown open to ease the heat.
He has previously likened today's Turkey to Nazi Germany.
Several dozen of Say's supporters, who include actors, writers and fellow musicians, held up placards outside that made clear their view that the trial was politically motivated.
"AK Party: Hands off art and artists," read one.
Erdogan's AK, its initials spelling out the Turkish word for purity, was elected 10 years ago with the strongest majority seen in years. A decade since then of unprecedented prosperity is admired among Western allies keen to portray NATO member Turkey as a beacon of political stability in a troubled region.
But Erdogan's opponents have increasingly accused him of posing a threat to the modern, secular republic founded by Kemal Ataturk on the ruins of the Ottoman empire 90 years ago.
The courts have helped silence opposition and emasculate a military which was long the self-appointed guardian of Turkish secularism. It pressured an Islamist-led government from power in 1997 but has since been forced into retreat under AK rule.
Hundreds of politicians, academics and journalists are in jail on charges of plotting against the government; more than 300 army officers were handed long prison terms last month, convicted of conspiring to topple Erdogan almost a decade ago.
"Many intellectual friends, journalists are behind bars for reasons we can't know or understand," Say said in a message read out at a performance in his support on the eve of the hearing.
"I can't even begin to explain this era. Believe me this reminds me of Nazi Germany the most.
"It is perhaps an honor to be tried because of retweeting a verse of Khayyam in an era like this... I have committed no crime... We are modern individuals, not a flock.
"If this is a dark era, then let us enlighten it."
The courts have long been a tool in the struggle between Turkey's secular establishment and religious conservatives.
Once, the dominant theme was hardline secularists selectively interpreting the country's laws to try perceived Islamist opponents on trumped-up charges of insulting "Turkishness" or the army, or of inciting religious hatred.
"The geography of the judiciary in this country has become a geography of politics," said Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at the Bosphorus University who also writes for the liberal daily Radikal.
Erdogan himself served six months in jail in 1998, when he was mayor of Istanbul, for reading a poem containing the lines: "The mosques are our barracks; the domes our helmets/ The minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."
Now a different set of hardliners are running the courts, critics of the judiciary and present government say.
"In Turkey, the law can be highly personalized, as if laws are applied differently to different people," said Bedri Baykam, a prominent Istanbul-based artist who was at court on Thursday.
"This whole thing is extremely disturbing for a country that claims to be in a state of 'advanced democracy'," he said, quoting a phrase often used by Erdogan. "It is a tragicomedy."
Say has performed with leading orchestras from Tokyo to Berlin, Paris and the New York Philharmonic. Also a jazz player, he is known for eccentricities in the classical music world, sometimes humming loudly or conducting flamboyantly with a free hand as he performs.
The poem he quoted, retweeted from another Twitter user, is in the form of a questions to believers: "You say rivers of wine flow in heaven: is heaven a tavern to you?/ You say two houris await each believer there: is heaven a brothel to you?"
In a separate tweet, Say poked fun at a muezzin, who calls the faithful to prayer from the minaret of the mosque: "The muezzin finished the evening prayers in 22 seconds ... Why are you in such hurry? A lover? A table of raki?"
Intolerance of dissent in Turkey is increasingly raising eyebrows abroad. In a report last week reviewing Ankara's case to the join the European Union, the European Commission found fault with Turkey's record on fair trials and freedom of speech.
Outside the courthouse, Sevim Dagdelen, a German parliamentarian of Turkish origin, read out a letter which she said dozens of German lawmakers had sent to Erdogan:
"In a democratic and secular state governed by the rule of law, expressing an opinion should not lead to long terms of imprisonment," it read. "A case like this is both an attack on artistic freedom and on the culture of humanity."
Say remains at liberty and the case was postponed to February 18 to allow more time for evidence to be gathered.
(This story fixes typos in paragraphs 3 and 4)
(Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)