Despite European court ruling, Turkey convicts lawyer for 'insulting' Erdoğan

Despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that states arresting individuals for "insulting the president" was a rights violation, Turkey has sentenced lawyer Sedat Ata to 11 months and 20 days in prison for "insulting" Erdoğan.

Pelin Akdemir / DUVAR

A Turkish lawyer was handed 11 months and 20 days in prison for "insulting" President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in stark contradiction with a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that stated convicting individuals over the said accusation is a rights violation. 

Lawyer Sedat Ata was handed the prison sentence last week, with the court deciding that he insulted Erdoğan in a video he shared on his social media accounts in 2014. 

The ECHR ruled this month that Article 299 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalizes “insulting the president,” is a violation of freedom of expression. 

Ata’s arrest is linked to the case of singer Deniz Seki, who was arrested and imprisoned for drug dealing in 2014. When Seki was quoted in the press saying that she “prayed and chanted” a lot in prison, to which another social media user replied that “it doesn’t replace cocaine, but it also gets you high.” Ata re-shared that comment on his social media channels. The prosecutor's office then opened an investigation into Ata for complaints of “offending religious sentiment.” He was then officially charged with insulting the president for the video he shared. He was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison, but the sentence was commuted to a fine of 7,000 Turkish liras due to the "personality of the accused and the characteristics of the crime."

Ata is one of 38,608 people to be charged with "insulting the president” between 2014 and 2020. The charge became critical to Erdoğan’s efforts to clamp down on dissent after he became president in 2014, and particularly after the coup attempt of 2016 and the constitutional referendum of 2017. 

Last week, the European Court of Human Rights handed down a decision in the case of Vedat Şorli which squarely deemed the "insulting the president" charge inconsistent with human rights law and freedom of expression.

Şorli was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison - the same length as Ata’s sentence - for a cartoon and photo he shared on Facebook. The ECHR determined that the ruling was inconsistent with both the European Convention on Human Rights and principles of freedom of expression in establishing special protection for the president. It further stated that article 299 could have a chilling effect on the Turkish public’s ability to discuss issues related to the public good, and asked Turkey to change the law. This ruling was expected to set a legal precedent for future “insult” cases.

However, Ata was convicted just two days later. In his defense, Ata and his lawyer Erol Çiçek argued that President Erdoğan was obliged to endure criticism as the leader of a political party. They further reminded the court that just two days earlier, the ECHR had ruled Şorli’s case a violation of his human rights.

“According to the European Convention on Human Rights, the common law of the Court of Cassation and the common law of the Constitutional Court, a crime did not occur,” Çiçek said, “We demand the acquittal of our client.”

Ata said that after the ECHR decision, he and his legal team assumed that he would be acquitted. However, that was not the case. Under Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution, Turkey is legally obliged to uphold rulings by the ECHR, to which it is a party. However, in recent years the court has failed to implement several of these decisions, such as in the cases of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş. 

Now, Ata says they will appeal to the Bursa Regional Court of Justice and will continue appealing until the charges are lifted.

“We intend to exhaust all legal remedies,” he said. 

Ata and Çiçek further said that the case is an example of the political pressure placed on the judiciary under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

“Judges in local courts do not dare to acquit, especially in cases of insulting the president,” said Ata. Çicek further said that the ruling was an example of “political pressure,” and that judges are afraid to give a verdict of acquittal.