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ECtHR faults Turkey for violating freedom of expression in terrorism, insult cases

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has faulted Turkey over the conviction of two individuals on charges of “disseminating propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “insulting the president” by way of the content they had shared on social media.

While the first applicant, Baran Durukan, was sentenced to more than a year for spreading propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) via his Facebook posts in July 2018, İlknur Birol, the other applicant, was sentenced in May 2019 to a 10-month prison term for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a tweet.

Listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, the PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

At the end of the respective proceedings, the domestic courts ruled to suspend the judgments against the two applicants. They decided to subject Mr. Durukan to a probation period of three years and Ms. Birol to five years, explaining that if they didn’t commit the same offenses during those periods, their convictions would be vacated.

The applicants’ objections to those decisions and their individual applications to the Constitutional Court were dismissed by the courts of competent jurisdiction between 2018 and 2020.

The Strasbourg court, in its Tuesday judgment, declared that the criminal convictions, coupled with the decisions to suspend the judgments, amounted to an infringement of the applicants’ right to freedom of expression as outlined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The court expressed concern about the “potentially chilling effect” of these actions.

The court also held that Turkey was to pay each applicant €2,600 in non-pecuniary damages.

In October 2021 Europe’s top rights court urged Turkey to amend a law granting President Erdoğan extra protection from perceived insults while awarding damages to a man jailed over Facebook posts deemed disrespectful of the leader.

The court said the Turkish law imposing harsher punishments for anyone convicted of insulting the president was “against the spirit” of the ECHR, which Ankara ratified in 1954.

“A state’s interest in protecting the reputation of its head of state could not serve as justification for affording the head of state privileged status or special protection vis-a-vis the right to convey information and opinions concerning him,” it added.

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