ISTANBUL — A 16-year-old high school student goes on trial in Turkey this Friday for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while the editor of the country’s leading opposition newspaper is facing up to nine years in jail for publishing an interview that angered the president. With additional powers for the security forces also in the pipeline, critics say Turkey is turning into a police state.
The trial of the student, named in press reports as Mehmet Emin Altunses, is the latest in a series of court cases, indictments and arrests directed against activists, some of them minors, and against journalists who are accused of having denigrated the president.
“We are marching towards the middle ages,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said in a speech this week. “Dictators can’t bring us democracy,” he said about Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Altunses was arrested by police in his school in the central Anatolian city of Konya in December after making a speech at a local rally commemorating the death of an army officer killed by Islamists in 1930. According to news reports, the high school student said he did not recognize Erdogan as president, but saw him as a leading figure in corruption—the subject of a raging scandal last year—and as the owner of an illegal palace.
The latter remark referred to a controversial new presidential palace in Ankara that was erected in defiance of building restrictions in the area, according to critics. Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time of the corruption scandal, says the accusations are baseless and part of efforts by U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen to unseat the government. The current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was quoted as saying everyone should respect the president.
Altunses was released two days after his arrest and is to appear before a juvenile court in Konya after the justice ministry in Ankara gave permission for the trial against the student to proceed. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.
Other youngsters have run into trouble as well for alleged criminal disrespect towards the head of state. In the western town of Ayvalik, a 13- year-old boy was questioned by prosecutors this week after being accused of insulting Erdogan in a Facebook post. The boy’s father told the local press the post also referred to last year’s corruption scandal. The prosecution’s action came shortly after a court in the southern resort city of Antalya handed down a suspended sentence of seven months against a 17-year-old also for alleged insults to Erdogan during a public rally.
The list goes on. Merve Buyuksarac, a former beauty queen, is facing up to two years in jail for insulting Erdogan via Instagram. News reports said Erdogan’s lawyers asked prosecutors to open an investigation against the erstwhile Miss Turkey.
Atilla Kart, a leading member the Republican People’s Party (CHP), accused Erdogan of spreading “fear, pressure, threats and arrests” with cases like that of Altunses in Konya. “Society is being sent a message here.”
Turkey has a long history of suppressing dissent, but ironically it was Erdogan himself who broadened the limits of free speech during his first years as prime minister, when he pushed for Turkey’s acceptance as a member of the European Union during the last decade. Critics say the reform process has given way to a roll back that has been gathering steam since Erdogan became Turkey’s first directly elected president last year. Erdogan says he remains committed to a stronger democracy in a “new Turkey.”
But some say the “new Turkey” means less, not more, tolerance for free speech if the opinions expressed are unpleasant for the government or the president himself. Comments on last year’s corruption scandal are frequently cited as reasons for legal action against government critics.
One example is Can Dundar, editor of the anti-Erdogan Cumhuriyet newspaper, who could be jailed for up to nine years because he interviewed a former prosecutor involved in the corruption investigation. Published under the headline “Erdogan was the number one,” the interview triggered a complaint by Erdogan’s lawyers because the president was accused of having been involved in the alleged corruption scam.
Last month, the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists wrote a letter to Davutoglu “to express alarm at a fresh wave of anti-press actions in Turkey”. Among others, CPJ pointed to the case of Dutch reporter Frederike Geerdink, who is facing trial in Turkey for spreading propaganda of the outlawed rebel group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
As the judiciary is raising pressure on the media, the government is pushing a bill through parliament that has raised concerns inside and outside Turkey about an erosion of the rule of law. Called the “Domestic Security Package”, the new laws would widen police powers to arrest and search protesters and would give officers broader rights to open fire during public unrest.
The bill has been denounced by the opposition in Ankara, where fistfights broke out on the floor of parliament during a debate about the package, as well as by human rights activists and by the Council of Europe. “Any widening of the powers of the police to use firearms, to use force during demonstrations, to stop and check, or to apprehend suspects at their own initiative without judicial authorization, would bear the risk of increasing the likelihood of human rights violations,” warned Nils Muiznieks, the council’s human rights commissioner.
Metin Bakkalci, general secretary of the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, told The Daily Beast the country was “on course towards an authoritarian regime.” He called on the government to cancel the Domestic Security Package and return to the path of reform. “The rule of law and the separation of powers are being demolished,” he said.