Turkish authorities detain man critical of gov’t policies on charges of insulting President Erdoğan

Turkish authorities on Thursday detained a man who had criticized the economic policies of the government in a street interview, on charges of insulting the president, the Duvar news website reported.

Mehmet Ali Sancaktutan, 52, was released the same day after being questioned by the police but will stand trial for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Sancaktutan said his intention was not to insult the president but to react to the failing economy. “I told the police that I did not accept the charges,” he said.

Sancaktutan said after the interview was published on YouTube he received death threats on social media. “I fear for my life and will file a complaint against those who threatened and insulted me,” he said.

Adding that he could not understand how his remarks were interpreted as an insult to the president, Sancaktutan said he was shocked by the prosecutor’s decision to launch an investigation.

Since Erdoğan assumed the presidential office in 2014, thousands of people have received prison sentences for insulting him — 2,046 in 2018 and 3,831 in 2019 alone. Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) states that any person who insults the president of the republic faces a prison term of up to four years. This sentence can be increased by a sixth if it has national exposure, and by a third if committed by the press or media. In total 9,554 people have been handed down sentences for insulting the president.

In a 2016 opinion the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s independent advisory body on constitutional matters, had noted with concern the large number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions reported by the press for insulting the president. It had recalled that the European Commission in its 2015 report on Turkey underlined that “there is a widened practice of court cases for alleged insult against the President being launched against journalists, writers, social media users and other members of the public, which may end in prison sentences, suspended sentences or punitive fines.” According to the same report, this climate of intimidation has led to increased self-censorship.

According to the Venice Commission, the use of offensive, shocking or disturbing words especially within the context of a debate on matters of public interest are guaranteed by freedom of expression. Expressions that may be perceived in the abstract as denigrating, such as “thief” (in relation to a corruption probe) or “murderer” (in relation to demonstrators who lost their lives during the Gezi protests), “dictator” and the like must be evaluated in their public debate context.

Human rights lawyer Kerem Altıparmak argues that Article 299 of the TCK runs against the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party, and should be annulled. The offense of insulting the head of state has been decriminalized in several European countries, and although it is still part of the penal codes of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, there have been no recent convictions.

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