Prominent Turkish actor Genco Erkal, 83, appeared before an İstanbul court on Thursday on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which carries a prison sentence of up to four years, the Cumhuriyet daily reported.
Erkal attended the first hearing of his trial with his lawyers. Opposition politicians such as Republican People’s Party lawmaker Sezgin Tanrıkulu and Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) lawmaker Ahmet Şık, who went to the İstanbul Courthouse to extend their support to the actor, as well as journalists covering the trial were not allowed to observe the hearing due to pandemic measures.
Erkal was investigated based on a complaint submitted in 2016. The prosecutor claimed that Erkal insulted Erdoğan in three separate tweets.
In a tweet on June 7, 2016 Erkal said: “Instead of meddling in the affairs of families and talking about having children or not, show us your diploma. Even if it was signed by a university president who’s your friend or even if it’s fake, let’s see it.”
Erdoğan is accused of not having a bachelor’s degree and submitting a fake university diploma instead to be eligible to run in presidential elections.
In another tweet on November 16, 2016, Erkal said: “The presidential system is not enough. Let’s have an ‘a la Turca’ system.”
Through a referendum in April 2017, Turkey switched from a parliamentary system of governance to an executive presidential system that granted President Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sweeping powers and is criticized for removing constitutional checks and balances, thus leading to a further weakening of Turkish democracy.
Erdoğan was re-elected president under the new system in 2018.
In the third tweet mentioned in the indictment Erkal said: “Oh, no! [Erdoğan] decided to destroy the beautiful Ayder plateau [in the Black Sea province of Rize], a natural wonder. He transforms everything he touches into concrete.”
In his defense statement on Thursday, Erkal denied that his tweets constituted insults of the president, saying they were merely criticism and that some were filled with irony.
“None of our presidents’ bachelor’s degrees has been a subject of controversy until now. All of them were placed in the state archives. They were clear and open. I’m just saying, ‘Let’s see the university diploma.’ There is humor in this tweet, there is irony, but I don’t see how it can be considered an insult,” said Erkal.
Insulting the president is subject to criminal charges under the controversial Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), and thousands of people in the country are under investigation, with most of them under threat of imprisonment, over alleged insults of Erdoğan. Whoever insults the president can face up to four years in prison, a sentence that can be increased if the crime was committed through the mass media.