Turkey opened its trial against two journalists on Thursday for publishing the cover of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo following the terrorist attack that took the lives of 11 people at the magazine’s headquarters. Hundreds of plaintiffs are alleging that, as Muslim readers, their personal offense at the images of Muhammad constitute a crime by the publishers.
Cumhuriyet, a secular newspaper, published an abridged version of Charlie Hebdo, translated from French to Turkish earlier this year following the attack and in solidarity with the publication’s right to exist. The cover of the issue following the attack, which featured Muhammad holding a sign reading “Je suis Charlie,” was not published to its full size in the Turkish version, but instead, as an accompanying illustration to two opinion pieces. Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya, the authors of the opinion pieces, are now on trial.
Karan and Çetinkaya are being accused of “publicly defaming religious values of a segment of the society,” as well as incitement to hatred, and are facing up to four and a half years in prison for their transgression. Turkish media notes that the journalists are facing a class action criminal complaint featuring 1,280 people. The family of litigious President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heavily represented in the suit: three of his children and a son-in-law are cited as plaintiffs, which also functions as a criminal complaint. Mustafa Varank, a personal aide to Erdogan, is also a plaintiff.
Not all the plaintiffs attended the opening of the trial, but over 100 did, creating a chaotic atmosphere exacerbated by the absence of the defendants, who were on business elsewhere in the country and chose not to attend. Haberler, another Turkish publication, reports that some of the plaintiffs cried during their testimonies. One of those told the court the defendants “were insulting our Prophet master. … That is shameful. This is not done in any other religion.”
Trouble began for Cumhuriyet even before the Turkish version of Charlie Hebdo hit the streets. The night before, Turkish police raided the newspaper’s printing press, preventing the issue from being released temporarily. The fact that the newspaper’s highest-ranking editors opted against printing the depiction of Muhammad on the cover did little to assuage Muslims sensitive to such images in the public, however, and hundreds took to the streets to protest the editorial decision.
The Turkish government under the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken measures to limit the freedom of expression in cases which may offend Muslims. In March, Erdogan’s media regulation agency banned 68,000 websites for “blasphemy” and constituting a danger to society. Charlie Hebdo’s website was among them.