Indictment seeks up to 8 years for national swimmer on Erdoğan insult charges

Turkey's Derya Buyukuncu competes in the men's 200m backstroke heats swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 1, 2012 in London. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

A former Turkish national swimmer is facing a prison sentence of up to eight years on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his tweets, Turkish Minute reported.

Turkish prosecutors issued a detention warrant for Derya Büyükuncu, a six-time Olympic backstroke and butterfly swimmer, in early February due to a tweet he posted about the health of Erdoğan, who had tested positive for COVID-19.

Büyükuncu currently lives in the United States.

After Erdoğan announced that he had tested positive and asked for prayers for his health, Büyükuncu was among the thousands of social media users who posted messages that included hope about Erdoğan’s death from the coronavirus.

“He contracted the coronavirus and wants us to pray for him. We are praying, he should have no worries. I have already begun to make halva in 20 pots. When the time comes, I will distribute them to the entire neighborhood,” Büyükuncu tweeted without mentioning Erdoğan’s name.

Halva is a traditional Turkish desert that is generally served to guests and distributed to neighbors when someone has died.

Halva also became a hashtag among Twitter users in Turkey after Erdoğan announced the news about getting infected with the coronavirus.

In the indictment drafted by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, the national swimmer is accused of insulting the president in successive tweets and faces a jail sentence of between one year, five months and eight years, two months.

The indictment also refers to another tweet by Büyükuncu in February in which he referred to Erdoğan as the “Takunyalı Führer,”  (The Leader with Clogs) the name of a book written by Turkish author Ergun Poyraz. Führer is a German word meaning leader that is associated with the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

According to the indictment, Büyükuncu went beyond the limits of the freedom of speech in his tweets and used defamatory language about the Turkish leader.

Meanwhile, it emerged in April that Turkish authorities had asked the US in February to interview Büyükuncu for allegedly insulting a public official on social media, namely Erdoğan.

In response the US Department of Justice said that it could not provide legal assistance to Turkey concerning Büyükuncu because the swimmer’s remarks were within the scope of freedom of expression, according to an email from the department.

The US Justice Department said it regretted to inform the Turkish ministry that it would not be able to execute the ministry’s request for legal assistance in the case of Büyükuncu because the First Amendment of the US Constitution provides for broad freedom of expression, and, as a result, prohibits criminal prosecution of speech except in narrowly defined circumstances.

“As you know, the limits to this protection include situations in which the speech comprises a true threat or incites imminent violence. In this case, there has not been a sufficient showing in this regard,” said the US Justice Department.

Insulting the president is subject to criminal charges under the controversial Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), and thousands of people in the country are under investigation, with most of them facing the threat of imprisonment over alleged insults of Erdoğan. 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.

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.

In the meantime, Büyükuncu was permanently banned by the Turkish Swimming Federation from participating in official sports events due to his “insulting” tweets about the president.

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