ISTANBUL – There's no monarch in democratic Turkey — but you might not know it watching the news these days.
It has become as easy to get jailed for offending the country's paramount leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as it is in countries where lese majeste laws forbid insults to royals. The trend alarms many people who have harbored hope for Turkey as a beacon of Western-style government in the Islamic world.
Take the case of former Miss Turkey Merve Buyuksarac. Last year, the beauty queen posted a seemingly innocuous poem on her Instagram site. The verses, a satirical adaptation of the Turkish national anthem, did not mention Erdogan by name, but alluded to a corruption scandal that involved his family.
In January, Buyuksarac was detained for questioning over suspicion of violating the law prohibiting insults to public servants. She could face up to two years in prison.
"In democratic countries, what happened to me is not normal," Buyuksarac told The Associated Press in an interview in an Istanbul cafe. "I think politicians have to be open to criticism."
Thousands of others also posted the poem, which can still be found on social networking sites. But Buyuksarac thinks the government picked a celebrity to strike fear into the heart of Erdogan's critics.
Buyuksarac may have been fortunate that she posted the poem before Erdogan changed jobs from prime minister to president in August. Last month, the chief editor of the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dundar, was hauled in for questioning under a more stringent law forbidding insults to the president. Violations of that law can lead to penalties of more than five years in prison.
His offense: publishing an interview of a prosecutor who led a corruption probe of people close to Erdogan. Erdogan has said the investigation was cooked up by rogue police and prosecutors tied to a U.S.-based cleric he accuses of attempting a coup.
Outside the Istanbul courthouse where he testified, Dundar told the AP that the government is employing the law to intimidate the independent press.
"They deem the slightest challenging news and every criticism as an insult and either launch an investigation into the subject or prosecute," he said. Free speech advocates have also criticized the government for using the law to muffle dissent. On Thursday, a prosecutor dismissed the case against Dundar, ruling there was no ground for a legal action, according to Dogan news agency.
The law against insulting the president has been on the books for decades and is a legacy of the veneration reserved for Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But before Erdogan became president, legal analysts say, the law was used far less aggressively. Kerem Altiparkmak, a lecturer on human rights issues at Ankara University's political science faculty, shared with AP a spread sheet documenting 43 known cases involving some 80 people in the half-year that Erdogan has been president. That compares to only a handful of cases that were filed during former President Abdullah Gul's seven-year term.
"When we look at the content of the cases, they're being launched for unbelievable reasons right now," said Deniz Ceylan, an independent attorney. "Investigations are launched into criticisms that aren't even harsh or that are humorous in nature."
The case of a 16-year-old student in the central Anatolian city of Konya has grabbed international attention. The youth went on trial Friday for reportedly criticizing Erdogan in a speech at a student protest in December, but the case was adjourned to April 3 after his lawyer asked that the judges be replaced. The boy can only be identified by his initials M.E.A. because of Turkish laws that protect minors.
The youth is being prosecuted for calling the president the "thieving owner of the illegal palace," referring to the opulent presidential palace Erdogan recently had built for himself. News agencies reported that another 13-year-old boy was pulled out of his school last month by police to testify about a Facebook posting that was deemed insulting to the president.
"We want a free Turkey, a free life," the 16-year-old told the Associated Press in an interview. "I want to be acquitted. And I'm sure the public conscience also hopes for this. "
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu defended the prosecution of the 16-year-old schoolboy — and blamed the opposition.
"Insulting is a crime ... I am sad that it was a child," he said. "Lately, insulting the president has reached such a point by the opposition that they are becoming a bad example for children."
The insult cases have recently drawn criticism from the European Union. And late last month, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Melia expressed concern during a visit to Ankara.
"The idea that anyone — whether the editor of a newspaper or a 16-year-old student, or a taxi driver — should fear prosecution and imprisonment for expressing their opinion in a public meeting or on social media, is problematic," he told reporters.
Turkish law can play both ways, however. This week, a judge ordered Erdogan to pay 10,000 Turkish Lira ($4,000) in compensation for insulting an artist by calling his gigantic sculpture — promoting reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia — a "monstrosity." Officials later dismantled the statue.
Following the ruling, Erdogan lawyer Ferah Yildiz may have unintentionally echoed the objections of those prosecuted under the insult law.
"The word 'monstrosity' is not an insult," Yildiz said, "it's criticism."
Fraser reported from Ankara; Ayse Wieting and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul, and Berza Simsek in Konya, contributed.
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