German Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to a request from Turkey to allow the prosecution of a German comedian who mocked Turkish President Erdogan, the Washington Post reported on Friday.
Jan Böhmermann, one of Germany’s most successful and popular young comedians, is accused of insulting a foreign head of state and could face up to five years in prison for broadcasting a sexually explicit poem on German television which referred to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “a goat-f****r” and implied he watched child pornography.
Turkish officials requested to prosecute Mr. Böhmermann last week. Insulting a foreign head of state is illegal under German law, and a prosecution can only take place if the foreign government in question requests it and the request for authorization is granted by the German government. After a day of deliberation, Mrs. Merkel granted permission for the case to go forward.
“The outcome is that the German government will give the authorisation in the current case,” she said, according to Sky News.
The controversial decision has highlighted the tough choice between Germany’s desire to uphold its values protecting the freedom of speech and its pragmatic need to safeguard its historically close relations with Turkey. The incident also threatens to undermine the European Union’s migrant deal with Turkey, which could help solve the regional refugee crisis.
Speaking at a news conference on Friday, Merkel stressed that the decision was not a judgement of the comedian’s guilt or innocence, and that it was up for the courts to decide.
“In a country under the rule of law, it is not up to the government to decide,” Merkel said, according to the Washington Post. “Prosecutors and courts should weight personal rights against the freedom of press and art.”
The television station that broadcast the poem, ZDF, has wiped the footage from its archives, but insists it did not violate the law.
Böhmermann told viewers that the poem was meant to demonstrate what wouldn’t be allowed in Germany, and defended it as satirical. Slatesummed up the intent of the poem.
“The scene was broadcast shortly after it emerged that Turkey had demanded the deletion of a satirical song from a German comedy show, extra3, and Böhmermann’s poem was deliberately framed as a test of the boundaries of satire. Throughout his reading, the comedian is advised by another comedian impersonating a media lawyer, who tells him this poem is precisely the sort of thing that does not qualify as satire and is therefore illegal.”
Earlier this week, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus had harsh criticism for the joke, calling it an insult to all Turks.
“That is why the Republic of Turkey demands that this impertinent man is immediately punished for insulting a president, within the scope of German law,” Kurtulmus said, according to the Washington Post. He added that the poem was a “serious crime against humanity” that had “crossed all lines of indecency.”
Ironically, President Erdogan has been criticized for cracking down on dissent and press freedom in Turkey, which was partially the basis for the poem’s satire.
Merkel says she will be pushing to repeal the obscure, anachronistic law in question, located under Article 103 of Germany’s criminal code. The law is so rarely used that many lawyers hadn’t heard of it until this week, and Merkel is pushing for it to be stricken from the books by 2018.
Though Böhmermann could serve time in prison if convicted, legal experts familiar with similar cases say the courts will likely rule that the poem was protected under freedom of expression, and that he will most likely just have to pay a fine or make a small donation to charity.
[Photo by Mathis Wienand/Getty Images]