Turkish prosecutors opened an investigation against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), on Wednesday for tweeting a cartoon depicting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as several wild animals.
The cartoon has been the source of much controversy over the years, resulting in prosecution against the illustration and surfacing repeatedly in student protests, as the Turkish judiciary found that the cartoon did not sufficient violate obscenity standards. Kılıçdaroğlu tweeted the image in apparent support for the student protesters who had recently revived it.
“Insulting the president” is a crime in Turkey, punishable by either fines or prison time, depending on the severity of the insult. It also allows Erdoğan to pursue civil charges against anyone he accuses of having insulted him.
According to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, the Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for a full investigation into Kılıçdaroğlu’s use of the offending illustration. Kılıçdaroğlu published the image on Twitter with the caption reading, “You’re going to tolerate criticism and humor—you’ve got to! You cannot get in the way of criticism and humor by imprisoning [people]”:
Eleştiriye ve mizaha tahammül edeceksin, etmelisin! Hapse atarak eleştirinin ve mizahın önüne geçemezsin. pic.twitter.com/D30J2cHsa6
— Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (@kilicdarogluk) July 17, 2018
Kılıçdaroğlu appeared to be referencing an incident at Turkey’s Middle East Technical University (ODTU) early this month, when four students brought along a large banner with the cartoon displayed on it to their graduation ceremony, emblazoned with the caption, “The World of Tayyip.” The four students were arrested for displaying the image.
Hurriyet notes that it is traditional at Middle East Technical University for graduates to bring banners with political statements imprinted on them to the graduation ceremony.
Kılıçdaroğlu is now the subject of a “probe,” under suspicion of having violated Turkish penal law against insulting the president. It is unclear what police need to further investigate, as Kılıçdaroğlu has not deleted the tweet or denied his intention in publishing it. Cumhuriyet, a secularist newspaper, reported that 72 legislators in the CHP are also facing charges for having insulted Erdoğan in relation to the poster, and that Kılıçdaroğlu is reportedly facing up to one million Turkish lira in fines ($208,589.70).
“Look at how far we’ve gone back on democracy,” Kılıçdaroğlu reportedly said about the student arrests before the probe was opened, arguing that the tradition of students making political statements at graduation was a sound one. “There is no insult, but there is [the students’] intelligence,” he explained.
“My Twitter account will publish this, and all my deputies will publish this cartoon,” the CHP head had promised.
A spokesman for Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) railed against Kılıçdaroğlu in response to the new prosecutorial charges on Wednesday. “We see this situation of Kılıçdaroğlu as extremely depraved,” spokesman Mahir Ünal said, according to Cumhuriyet.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency also reported Wednesday that Kılıçdaroğlu was charged a fine for a separate statement against Erdoğan: accusing the president of corruption. The state outlet reported that Kılıçdaroğlu was fined 359,000 Turkish liras (around $75,000) for insulting Erdoğan by claiming that he and some cronies “made illicit money transfers to the Isle of Man, a British crown dependency” in a speech in November. Hurriyet notes that Kılıçdaroğlu did not only make the accusation, but publicly release documents that CHP had collected the proved the illegal money transfers had occurred.
This is far from the first time that the CHP, and Kılıçdaroğlu personally, find themselves under attack. Kılıçdaroğlu has repeatedly referred to Erdoğan as a “dictator,” perhaps most publicly so at a million-strong rally against the president in July 2017. CHP spokesman Bülent Tezcan made a similar remark in November, referring to Erdoğan as a “fascist dictator,” that led to Erdoğan filing charges against him and the government fining him 50,000 Turkish lira (about $13,000).
Charges against private individuals for insulting Erdoğan are also common. Children as young as 13 have faced legal retribution for making disparaging comments against the president. In one famous incident, a Turkish doctor faced a two-year prison sentence for sharing a meme on social media that compared Erdoğan to Gollum, the greedy Lord of the Rings character. Defense attorneys argued that the doctor was actually comparing Erdoğan to Smeagol, Gollum’s better-natured alter ego.
Before the July 15, 2016, failed coup against Erdoğan, Turkish prosecutors had filed 268 cases against individuals for insulting the president; the number has skyrocketed since then as police seek to eradicate any element of resistance to Erdoğan from the country.