Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan insult
March 1, 2021 12:36 AM
Mujdat Gezen's half-century career as an acclaimed Turkish writer and actor has included awards, a stint as a UN goodwill ambassador and a taste of prison after a 1980 putsch.
Now aged 77, the wry-witted comedian and poet with an easy smile and a bad back risks returning to jail on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader's years-long battle with what he dismissively calls "so-called artists".
"I am even banned from appearing in crossword puzzles," Gezen quipped.
Gezen landed in court with fellow comedian Metin Akpinar, 79, over comments the pair made during a television show they starred in on opposition Halk TV in 2018.
In the broadcast, Gezen told Erdogan to "know your place".
"Look Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot test our patriotism. Know your place," Gezen said on air.
His parter Akpinar went one step further, saying that "if we don't become a (democracy)... the leader might end up getting strung up by his legs or poisoned in the cellar".
These are risky comments to make in a country still reeling from a sweeping crackdown Erdogan unleashed after surviving a failed coup in 2016.
Their trial is coming with Erdogan rattled by a burst of student protests that hint at Turks' impatience with his commanding rule as prime minister and president since 2003.
Prosecutors want to put the two veteran celebrities behind bars for up to four years and eight months. The verdict is expected on Monday.
- 'Pay the price'-
Thousands of Turks, from a former Miss Turkey to school children, have been prosecuted for insulting Erdogan on social media and television.
Bristling at the jokes and comments, Erdogan warned in 2018 that his critics "will pay the price".
"The next day," Gezen told AFP in an interview by telephone, "police turned up and I was summoned to give a statement to prosecutors."
The knock on the door reminded Gezen of how he ended up being dragged before the courts after spending 20 days in jail when a military junta overthrew Turkey's civilian government at the height of the Cold War in 1980.
Gezen's book about Nazim Hikmet -- perhaps Turkey's most famous 20th century poet, who happened to be a communist who died in exile in Moscow in 1963 -- was taken off the shelves after that coup.
"I was chained up while being taken from prison to court with a gang of 50 criminals, including murderers and smugglers," he recalled.
He was freed by the court in 1980, and may yet be acquitted on Monday.
Still, Gezen is uncomfortable with the similarities, and with Turkey's trajectory under Erdogan.
"There is a record number of journalists in jail -- we have never seen this in the history of the republic. That's what upsets me," he said.
- 'It is risky' -
An author of more than 50 books and founder of his own art centre in Istanbul, Gezen says he has "either criticised or parodied politicians to their faces" for decades without going to jail.
His popularity and resolve earned him a role in 2007 as a goodwill ambassador for the UNICEF children's relief fund.
But he fears that Turkey's tradition of outspoken artists -- "art is by its nature oppositional," he remarked -- is wilting under Erdogan.
"We now have self-censorship. But what is even more painful to me is that (some artists) prefer to be apolitical," he said.
"The president has said how he expects artists to behave. But it cannot be the president of a country who decides these things. It's the artists who must decide."
To be on the safe side, Gezen's lawyers now read his books before publication to avoid legal problems.
"It is risky in Turkey," he observed.
Many of the opposition media outlets that once flourished have been either closed or taken over by government allies, leaving independent voices with even fewer options.
But he remains doggedly optimistic, calling democracy in Turkey something tangible but just out of reach, like the shore for a stranded boat.
"And then someone up on the mast will cry: Land ahoy!"