Politics, World, Europe

Germany to allow prosecution over Erdogan poem

Merkel underlines respect for freedoms but says court will decide whether German comedian defamed Turkish president

Germany to allow prosecution over Erdogan poem


Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government has decided to allow the criminal prosecution of a German comedian for a poem mocking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Speaking on Friday, Merkel stressed her government's commitment to democratic freedoms and the rule of law, but said in line with the existing penal code, which criminalizes the defamation of foreign leaders, her government decided to allow a legal probe.

“There were different opinions among the coalition partners, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). As a result of our discussion, the federal government will authorize prosecution,” Merkel said at a news conference.

German comedian Jan Bohmermann sparked uproar in Turkey with his sexually crude and insulting poem about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which he read two weeks ago on public broadcaster ZDFneo.

Bohmermann claimed his poem only wanted to highlight the supposed lack of human rights in Turkey; however, several critics saw the poem as racist and abusive, exceeding the limits of freedom of expression.

Turkey protested against the show and demanded prosecution for the poem in a diplomatic note sent to the German Foreign Ministry last week.

According to little-used legislation, paragraph 103 of the German penal code, any German citizen who insults a foreign head of state can face imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, but in case of a slanderous insult, imprisonment can be between three months and five years.

Paragraph 104a of the same law states that such offences can only be prosecuted if the foreign government concerned makes a request to the federal German government, and it accepts this request.

Merkel underlined that her government’s decision to authorize the prosecution does not mean that the state is issuing a prejudgment on the controversial poem, or limiting freedom of thought.

She said those questions will be answered by the assessment of an independent judiciary.

“It is not the government but the prosecutors and the courts that will have the last word,” she stressed.

Merkel also criticized paragraph 103 of the German penal code for being outdated, announcing that her government will abolish this controversial paragraph in the coming months.

The German Chancellor has come under strong criticism recently in the media for not rejecting Ankara’s request to prosecute Bohmermann. The German opposition accused her of shying away from criticizing human rights deficits in Turkey due to Ankara’s key role as a partner in solving the refugee crisis.

Merkel dismissed these claims on Friday, claiming that issues of democracy, human rights and press freedom are regularly raised in contacts with Turkey, which she described as a close partner.

In a surprise move, Merkel’s SPD coalition partners have publicly criticized Merkel’s decision, arguing that priority should have been given to the protection of freedom of thought and artistic freedoms.

“I personally think that the content of this slanderous poem is repulsive but I also believe that it is wrong for the government to authorize judicial authorities to prosecute the defamation of the president,” SPD parliamentary group leader Thomas Oppermann said in parliament.

A senior SPD figure, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, told a news conference in parliament that his party opposed the prosecution during discussions among the Chancellor and cabinet ministers.

“Freedom of thought, press freedom and artistic freedoms are of utmost importance according to our constitution,” Steinmeier said.

President Erdogan has also made a personal criminal complaint against the comedian, under paragraph 185 of the German penal code. 

Michael-Hubertus von Sprenger, the president’s Munich-based lawyer, told public broadcaster ZDF Tuesday night that he would use all legal means to pursue the case.

"The president is determined that the person concerned will be punished and also that he will not repeat what he had said in future,” von Sprenger said.

“That was necessary to bring him back to the right path, create satire and not make crude insults anymore,” he added.

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