Juvenile on trial for insulting PM

Turkey's judicial system raises questions as lawyers rally behind the 13-year-old, who Erdogan may have manhandled during the election.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is known for his rather low threshold of tolerance.
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ISTANBUL // On the day that changed his life, Mehmet wanted to play basketball. Instead, he met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, received some painful bruises on his neck and is now looking at up to three years in prison.

A pupil from Aydin in western Turkey, Mehmet, 13, whose real name is being withheld because Turkish law forbids the publication of the names of juvenile defendants, is to appear in a juvenile court in his hometown today, charged with insulting the prime minister. "There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world," said Kemal Aytac, a lawyer from Istanbul who has volunteered along with 40 colleagues to defend Mehmet in court.

"You have a trial with the prime minister on one side and a 13-year-old boy on the other side. That's what kind of a country Turkey is." The case against Mehmet has raised questions about the state of the judicial system in Turkey, but also about Mr Erdogan himself. The prime minister, who is 55, has presided over a period of momentous democratic change in the country since he came into office in 2003, but is also known for his rather low threshold of tolerance when confronted with criticism.

On March 9, Mr Erdogan visited Aydin to deliver a campaign speech before local elections that were held 20 days later. After his speech, Mr Erdogan took a tour through town in his campaign bus, from which he greeted the crowd through an open door. Mehmet had an appointment with friends to play basketball and was waiting for them at a street corner, Mr Aytac said. When Mr Erdogan's bus passed, Mehmet shouted: "Allah will punish you at the elections." The prime minister heard the remark and had some of his body guards fetch the boy and bring him to the bus. There, Mr Erdogan gripped Mehmet's neck tightly and asked him what he had said, according to Mr Aytac. The boy repeated his phrase. "Why do you say that?" Mr Erdogan asked. "I don't like you," was the answer. Mr Erdogan then told his body guards to take the boy away.

According to Mr Aytac, Mehmet received painful bruises at the back of his neck, where Mr Erdogan had held him. The boy showed the bruises to the media and to the police, after his family filed a complaint against the prime minister. The state prosecutor in Aydin dropped the investigation when police informed him that there was no footage of surveillance cameras of the incident. Mr Aytac said it was "impossible that they don't have pictures" because a big event like a visit by the prime minister would be minutely documented by the police.

Meanwhile, another prosecutor in Aydin opened an investigation against Mehmet for insulting Mr Erdogan. In the course of the trial, which opens today, Mr Erdogan may be heard as a witness, Mr Aytac said. The lawyer said he would argue that Mehmet did not insult the prime minister and that the trial as such is unlawful because Mr Erdogan did not visit Aydin in his role as head of government, but as leader of his governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

As a result of reforms designed to bring Turkey closer to the norms of the European Union, the country's law says that citizens are free to criticise the state or its representatives, as long as they do not cross the line to insults. But prosecutors and judges often draw that line much more restrictively than their colleagues in EU countries. Although the trial was not triggered by a complaint by Mr Erdogan, but by a state prosecutor, the case has added to an impression, built up over the years, that the prime minister simply cannot take dissent.

Mehmet is not the first one to experience this tendency at first hand. Three years ago, during a visit to the southern city of Mersin, Mr Erdogan was confronted by a farmer who loudly protested against Ankara's agricultural policy. "What is to become of the farmer? Our mothers are crying," the farmer, Kemal Oncel, shouted, using a phrase meaning "we are in a tight spot". Mr Erdogan's angry answer was captured by television cameras: "Take your mother and get lost."

When Mr Erdogan visited Mersin again during the local election campaign this spring, Mr Oncel said he was taken into police custody as a potential troublemaker. The episode sparked protests by the opposition in Ankara. "Who are you to curtail the freedom of a citizen? Are you Mussolini? Are you Hitler?" Oktay Vural, a leading member of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, asked Mr Erdogan during a speech in parliament.

"He needs anger management therapy," Vicdan Yucel, a psychologist in Istanbul, said about Mr Erdogan. "Never before has a prime minister acted this way." In recent years, Mr Erdogan has sued newspaper cartoonists because he felt insulted by their works, has used very strong language in exchanges with political foes and has acquired a reputation for being unable to stomach criticism. "The prime minister regards himself as a man who knows everything," Halil Ibrahim Ozsoy, a former Turkish health minister, said about Mr Erdogan last year.

Mr Erdogan has acknowledged that he sometimes comes across as rough. "First and foremost, I am human," he said when asked by an interviewer of the NTV news channel whether he sometimes regrets things he says. But Mr Erdogan added that he was the target of many verbal attacks and much unjust criticism. "In my office, I am not confronted with one or 10 people, but with hundreds or thousands," he said. "All parties of the political arena attack you."

tseibert@thenational.ae