Erdogan brooks no insults, with 1,845 Turks taken to court

ISTANBUL • Since August 2014, 1,845 criminal cases have been opened against Turks for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a crime that carries a penalty of up to four years in prison.

Among the offenders are journalists, authors, politicians, a soccer star, even schoolchildren.

That number quantified a growing trend of cracking down on dissent, and was revealed this week by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag in response to a question in Parliament on Tuesday.

"I don't think you could read this without blushing," he said, defending judicial scrutiny of the alleged insults. "It is not an expression of opinion, it is all swears and insults. Nobody should have the freedom to swear."

The insult crimes reflect the President's authoritarian leadership style, critics say, and his determination to not let any insult, perceived or otherwise, go unanswered. They have also created bizarre legal scenarios.

In one case, a doctor lost his job for creating a meme that compared Mr Erdogan to Gollum, the creature from The Lord Of The Rings, and a judge ordered expert testimony to determine whether Gollum was good or evil.

Mr Hakan Sukur, a beloved soccer star-turned-politician who was once a member of Mr Erdogan's party, has been targeted for posts on Twitter. A 13-year-old boy was charged after posting to Facebook. And a husband presented a recording of his wife, accused of insulting Mr Erdogan while she watched him on television, to a prosecutor.

The cases have rarely resulted in jail terms, although some defendants have received suspended sentences. And many have wound up in pre-trial detention.

Still, the pursuit of such cases has had a chilling effect on speech, activists and lawyers say.

"This is intimidation," said Mr Ozgur Urfa, a lawyer who has defended more than two dozen people in insult cases. Many cases revolved around slogans chanted at demonstrations, he said in an interview on Wednesday. He said the most common protest chant subject to prosecution is: "Thief! Murderer! Erdogan!"

Mr Kerem Altiparmak of the Ankara University Human Rights Centre said with the prosecution of the insult crimes, the authorities are able to squelch unflattering remarks about the President and general politics.

Turkey has never had wide regard for freedom of expression, and in previous times the judicial system aggressively targeted those who insulted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founding father, and those who insulted "Turkishness" or the Turkish nation.

It has also long had a law on its books making it a crime to insult the President, although it was rarely enforced before Mr Erdogan became President in 2014.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'Erdogan brooks no insults, with 1,845 Turks taken to court'. Print Edition | Subscribe