11 lawyers face prison for criticizing top imam over LGBT statement

The head of the Ankara Bar Association and 10 members of the association’s executive board face up to two years in prison due to a press statement in which they criticized the country’s top imam for his remarks targeting LGBT and HIV positive people, Turkish Minute reported.

In a controversial speech in April 2020, Ali Erbaş, the head of Turkey’s top religious authority, the Diyanet, which runs mosques and appoints imams, claimed during his weekly sermon that homosexuality caused HIV and that all the evil and pandemics in the world are caused by homosexuality.

The Ankara Bar Association in a press statement accused him of inciting hatred against gays while ignoring child abuse and misogyny. Ankara prosecutors launched an investigation into the bar association for “insulting the religious values adopted by a segment of society.” The Diyanet, meanwhile, has filed a criminal complaint against the lawyers.

Now, the bar association’s 11 lawyers are facing a prison sentence of between one and two years on charges of insult based on the 125th Article of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).

The lawyers’ trial will begin at the Ankara 16th High Criminal Court on Nov. 11.

In the meantime, the bar association has released a statement saying that their criticism of Erbaş was within the limits of freedom of speech and that they had no intention of insulting the top imam.

The Diyanet was established in 1924 to oversee religion in secular Turkey after the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.

Critics say the organization has an outsized budget and is a symbol of creeping conservatism under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, despite Turkey being officially secular.

At the time Erdoğan stood behind Erbaş’s remarks targeting the LGBT community and said, “An attack against the Diyanet chief is an attack on the state,” adding, “What he said was totally right.”

Although homosexuality has been legal throughout modern Turkey’s history, gay people regularly face harassment and abuse.

In recent years, LGBT events have been blocked including Istanbul Pride, which was banned in 2014 after taking place every year since 2003.

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