(Berlin) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has chosen to drop a complaint against four Ankara students he accused of “insulting the president” for holding up a satirical banner, Human Rights Watch said today. The students’ trial is due to begin on October 22, but the prosecutor is likely to seek their acquittal following the announcement that the president has withdrawn his complaint. While the move is a positive and welcome development for the four students scheduled for trial, it does not address the wider problem of thousands of similar ongoing cases in the courts which blatantly violate freedom of expression, the organization said.
“‘Insulting the president’ should not be a crime, and students holding up a satirical banner obviously should never have faced prosecution,” said Benjamin Ward, Europe and Central Asia acting director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish courts have convicted thousands of people in the past four years simply for speaking out against the president. The government should stop this mockery of human rights and respect people in Turkey’s right to peaceful free expression.”
The case is one of many such prosecutions for the same offense over the past four years and relies on article 299 of Turkey’s penal code, a provision rarely used before Erdoğan was elected president in 2014. Human Rights Watch first reported a rising number of prosecutions for “insulting the president” in 2015, and the numbers are increasing.
The students, D.C.Y., B.A., F.E.D., and Ö.K., identified only by initials for their protection, were detained after their July 6 graduation ceremony at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. There is a university tradition that graduating students mark the ceremony by holding up humorous and satirical banners, many of them reflecting current developments in Turkey. Among the hundreds of banners, three students carried a banner with the caption “Now it’s ….Kingdom of the Tayyips,” depicting animals drawn with the president’s face. The caricature was based on a 2005 cover image from Turkey’s satirical magazine Penguen.
Police detained the students at their homes following a complaint by a lawyer acting for Erdoğan. On July 11, 2018, an Ankara court ordered they be placed in pretrial detention pending trial. A fourth student, Ö.K., who helped the others transport the banner to the campus, was also charged with the same offense and remanded to custody a day later. The court ordered the four released on August 10. Ş.D., manager of the stationery shop that printed the banner, was charged with the same offense and faces trial with the students on October 22.
Prosecutions under article 299 of the Turkish penal code for “insulting the president” require the Minister of Justice’s permission and carry potential prison sentences of one to four years. They have risen dramatically from 132 in 2014 to more than 6,000 in 2017. Courts have often suspended sentences or converted them to fines. Using the article to prosecute journalists, academics, juveniles, and ordinary people for social media postings, a phenomenon since Erdoğan became president, is a direct assault on freedom of expression and critical speech devoid of advocacy or incitement to violence.
When the images were first published by Penguen on February 24, 2005, Erdoğan, then prime minister, lodged a complaint of defamation and sought damages from the magazine of 40 thousand Turkish Lira (approximately US$31,000). An Istanbul court rejected the law suit and ruled that the caricature fell within the boundaries of freedom of expression and was not defamatory.
On July 17, 2018, the chair of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu tweeted the “Kingdom of Tayyips” caricature, saying, “You must tolerate criticism and humour, you have to! You cannot stop criticism and humour by putting them in prison.” The next day, the Ankara prosecutor’s office initiated a preliminary investigation against him for insulting the president. Other CHP parliamentarians also shared the caricature on Twitter to support the students. Erdoğan’s lawyers have filed a criminal complaint against 72 CHP parliamentarians for insulting the president because they tweeted the banner image. Members of parliament enjoy immunity and cannot be questioned by the prosecutor’s office while they are serving parliamentarians, unless that immunity is stripped in accordance with the law.
Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and legally bound under both to respect freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that any efforts to protect a head of state “cannot justify conferring on him or her a privilege or special protection vis-à-vis the right to … express opinions about him or her.” Satirical speech enjoys special protection as a form of artistic expression and social commentary, and the court routinely finds that charges of “insulting the president” violate the Convention, noting that criminalization of satire would have a deterrent effect on free debate of questions of general interest. United Nations and regional experts on freedom of expression have called for repeal of all laws that provide special protection for public figures.
“Turkey should stop throttling free speech through misuse of the criminal law and behave like a democratic society based on rule of law and respect for human rights,” Ward said “Decisions by prosecutors and courts to start or drop cases should not rest on the word of the president.”
For more details on specific cases, please see below.
A Sharp, Ongoing Rise in Prosecutions Under Article 299
According to the Ministry of Justice’s General Directorate of Judicial Records and Statistics, the number of people prosecuted for article 299 has rapidly increased since 2014. The records reveal that 132 people (including 1 minor) were prosecuted in 2014, that there was a sharp increase to 1,953 (including 76 minors) in 2015, and that in 2016, the number of cases more than doubled, with 4,187 persons (including 148 minors) prosecuted. In 2016, 54 of the minors prosecuted were aged between 12 and 15. A further huge leap occurred in 2017, when prosecutions rose to 6,033, with 340 cases concerning minors (42 aged between 12 and 15). According to the ministry’s statistics, the number of convictions also rose over the same period. While 40 persons were convicted for insulting the president in 2014, 238 were convicted in 2015, the number almost quadrupled to 884 in 2016, and jumped to a staggering 2,099 convictions in 2017.
According to a report by Bianet, a media monitoring and online news organization, at least eight journalists were convicted for insulting the president in the first three months of 2018.
Among the recent prosecutions and convictions under article 299, the following cases against well-known public figures stand out. Numerous other cases against ordinary people are never reported in the media and are therefore difficult to document.
Ahmet Yıldırım, former member of parliament for the Peoples’ Democratic Party
On September 12, 2015, Yıldırım gave a press conference in the eastern town of Muş regarding a blanket curfew in the city of Cizre. In his speech, he referred to the president as “that would-be sultan in the palace.” Yıldırım’s parliamentary immunity was lifted in May 2016 along with other MPs from his party, and he was convicted of insulting the president by a court in Muş. An appeal court in Erzurum confirmed his conviction on January 22, 2018, and on February 27, Yıldırım was stripped of his parliamentary seat because of the conviction. He is the first parliamentarian in Turkey to have been stripped of his seat for insulting the president.
The Turkish singer known as Suavi
In a speech on October 29, 2016, Suavi said, “there is no difference between Fethullah Gülen and Tayyip Erdoğan.” Suavi was tried before the Izmir Criminal Court of First Instance for insulting the president. On April 17, the court convicted Suavi, sentencing him to 11 months and 20 days in prison. The sentence was converted to a fine of 14,000 Turkish Liras (US$3,410) and 2,180 Turkish Liras ($531) for the president’s legal fees. The case is on appeal.
Abdullatif Şener, Justice and Development Party founding member and deputy prime minister from 2002-07
Abdullatif Şener was indicted for insulting the president in March 2018 for several Twitter posts. In his testimony, Şener said that his account was hacked and that he did not write the tweets in question. The case continues.
Adnan Keskin, former Republican People’s Party parliamentarian
On February 13, 2018, an Antalya court convicted Adnan Keskin of insulting the president. He was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in jail, suspended on condition he does not commit a similar offense in the next 5 years. The case concerned a speech by Keskin made at the opening of a party office in 2016 including the words “fascist” and “thief.” A lower court had acquitted him, but the prosecutor appealed the acquittal.
The singer Zuhal Olcay
During a concert in Istanbul on August 5, 2016, Zuhal Olcay inserted Erdoğan’s name in a song entitled “I have given up on this world,” and someone lodged a complaint. After examining video of her performance, the Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office prosecuted the singer for publicly insulting the president. On July 12, 2018, an Istanbul court convicted the singer and handed down a suspended prison sentence of 11 months and 20 days. Erdoğans’s lawyers appealed the decision to suspend the sentence, arguing that the singer should serve the prison sentence. The appeal is pending at the Court of Cassation.
Writer Ahmet Altan
Altan, currently imprisoned, has faced many cases, including a February 28, 2018 conviction for “insulting the president.” Altan criticized the government and the president in a June 14, 2016 article he wrote about government policy in the mainly Kurdish southeast and military operations in the region. He was given 2 years and 11 months, in addition to 3 years for spreading terrorist propaganda, for which he was convicted at the same trial. In another case on April 26, 2018, Altan was acquitted of insulting the president.