The criminalization in Turkey of "insulting the president" reached a new low in early March, when a father and daughter in Ankara accused one another of engaging in the punishable offense, as part of an internal family feud.
According to Istanbul Bilgi University professor of law, Yaman Akdeniz, since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's 2014 election, there have been 66,691 "insult investigations" launched, resulting in 12,305 trials thus far, and the "numbers are increasing."
Özgür Aktütün, chairman of the Sociology Alumni Association, told the independent Turkish daily BirGün that although Turkey has been "a society of informants" since the Ottoman Empire, "what is striking in recent times is the [rampant] use of [whistleblowing] on every issue."
"Insulting the president" is a crime according to Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code, adopted in 1926. If convicted, violators face up to four years in prison -- and longer, when the insult is public.
"Turkish courts have convicted thousands of people in the past four years simply for speaking out against the president. The government should stop this mockery of human rights and respect people in Turkey's right to peaceful free expression."
This was not the first time that HRW called on the Erdoğan government to cease prosecuting people for insulting the president. In a 2015 article on the topic, HRW wrote:
"Turkish government figures regularly contend that insulting words are not free speech. Bodies including the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and human rights groups in Turkey and internationally have repeatedly criticized this position and Turkey's regular restriction of freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has repeatedly issued rulings on Turkey, finding violations of freedom of expression protected under article 10 of the European Convention...
"Since the end of 2014 the authorities have pursued a spate of such cases with the justice minister's permission, including against children, and several have entailed short periods of pretrial detention... Some cases have involved oral statements; others were for criticism on social media. In no case has the accused used or incited violence."
It is sadly ironic that "insulting the president" is one of the few issues about which there is no governmental discrimination along socioeconomic, gender or ethnic lines in Turkey. Indeed, people of all walks of life have been subject to investigations or prosecutions over this alleged offense, including high school students. Two teenagers were briefly detained and brought to court in 2015, for instance, after "insulting the president" in their speeches and slogans during an event in Konya.
The head of the main opposition party, CHP, in Turkey's parliament, the CEO of bank HSBC Turkey, Turkey's Fox News anchor, two famous actors, a former judge and a 78-year-old citizen are all examples of people who have been investigated, prosecuted, sued or jailed for "insulting Erdoğan."
Others who have been penalized for the offense are the former co-chair of the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), who is serving an 18-month prison sentence; another HDP member, who was stripped of his parliamentary seat last year; and Ahmet Sever, a spokesperson for Turkey's former president, Abdullah Gül, who authored a book in which he wrote: "We [are] faced with a government or, more precisely, with one man, who considers books to be more dangerous than bombs."
Erdoğan's use of Article 299 as an intimidation tactic may be highly effective: if such prominent figures as Sever end up in court for daring to criticize the government, what chance do average citizens have to stand up for their right to express themselves? However, if Erdoğan believes that silencing his people is a way of keeping a stranglehold on his near absolute power, he may not be taking into account the fact that increasing numbers of Turks are frustrated and angry.
Meanwhile, as Erdoğan continues to imprison anyone who opposes his rule, he is playing a double game with the West, as part of his decades-long bid to become a member of the European Union. That plan may well be why his justice minister announced in December that he would be unveiling a new strategy for judicial reform. The EU should not fall for this transparent ploy. Instead, it should be demanding that the Turkish government cease prosecuting innocent people -- including those whose only "crime" is criticizing Erdoğan.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.