Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has withdrawn the criminal complaints he filed against people living across 11 provinces hit by the last month’s major earthquakes for allegedly “insulting the president,” Turkish Minute reported, citing his lawyer.
Turkey’s most powerful earthquake in almost 100 years, which struck near the city of Gaziantep on Feb. 6, has claimed the lives of more than 45,000 people in the country, according to the latest official figures. The 7.8-magnitude quake was followed by a number of aftershocks, including a 7.5-magnitude temblor that jolted the region in the middle of search and rescue efforts the same day.
In the days following the disaster, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government faced the anger of earthquake victims and were mainly accused of failing to effectively coordinate search and rescue efforts and distribute sufficient tents, humanitarian aid and relief teams in several locations.
In his first address to the nation following the powerful earthquakes, the president threatened those spreading “lies” about the disaster.
Erdoğan said he was “keeping note of all the lies and distortions and would open my notebook when the time comes,” remarks that have been interpreted by many as an attempt to silence criticism of his government due to what they say was its poor response to the disaster.
The president’s lawyer, Hüseyin Aydın, on Friday announced in a tweet that Erdoğan had withdrawn the complaints that led to investigations into people in 11 provinces hardest-hit by the earthquake.
The move comes as Erdoğan tries to increase his votes in the parliamentary and presidential elections slated for May 14. The earthquake struck just as the president was gaining momentum and starting to lift his approval numbers from a low reached during a dire economic crisis that exploded last year.
Thousands of people in Turkey are under investigation, and most of them are under the threat of imprisonment, over alleged insults of President Erdoğan. The insult cases generally stem from social media posts shared by Erdoğan opponents. The Turkish police and judiciary perceive even the most minor criticism of Erdoğan or his government as an insult.
Insulting the president is a crime in Turkey, according to the controversial Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Whoever insults the president can face up to four years in prison, a sentence that can be increased if the crime was committed through the mass media.
According to data from the Justice Ministry, Erdoğan brought legal action on insult charges against 44,675 people between 2014, when he was first elected president, and September 2022. The total number of insult cases launched by five presidents before him is only 1,716.