2 teenagers in Turkey face prison sentences for insulting Atatürk, denigrating religious values

Turkish prosecutors have demanded prison terms for a 17-year-old who was arrested last week over a video of him performing a lewd act with a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic, and for a 19-year-old who was arrested on Sept. 16 for sharing a picture with vodka in a mosque.

The 17-year-old high student, identified only by the initials A.E.S., is facing charges of insulting Atatürk and is reportedly facing up to three years in prison under Law 5816, which safeguards “the memory of Atatürk” from insult by any Turkish citizen, Turkish Minute reported on Thursday.

He was detained and arrested after his video went viral on social media, causing a stir in the country.

Opposition politicians, including Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, criticized the action and accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of exploiting the public’s sensitivities to deceive them and foment enmity among Turks.

Nineteen-year-old S.Y.Ö. was arrested two weeks ago after sharing a photo of himself drinking vodka in an İstanbul mosque. After a review of the CCTV footage, prosecutors have charged him with “denigrating religious values observed by a segment of the public” and “fomenting hatred and enmity,” demanding up to four years in prison.

In his defense statement S.Y.Ö. admitted that the social media account was his and he deleted the account the same day of the incident.

Turkey’s laws that criminalize insult, denigration and fomenting enmity are regularly used by the authorities to detain, arrest and prosecute individuals, particularly when their acts or commentary attract widespread attention on social media. Some have described this dynamic as the “Twitter court,” referring to the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

Incidents and comments concerning Atatürk or Islamic symbols often cause tensions along the secular-conservative divide.

In recent years, the Turkish government has passed laws that tightened its grip on social media by coercing platforms to appoint representatives in Turkey and threatening to reduce bandwidth for platforms that fail to comply with court orders for censorship.

A new provision enacted last year makes it a crime to “spread false or misleading information online” and has led to the detention and prosecution of numerous social media users.

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