ANKARA, Turkey — A high school student who was jailed for allegedly insulting Turkey’s leader was released from custody on Dec. 26 after his arrest caused uproar and intensified fears that Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is lurching toward more authoritarian rule.
The 16-year-old boy was arrested on Dec. 24 for allegedly calling Erdogan a thief, a day after he took part in a small left-wing student rally commemorating the death of a pro-secular army officer slain by Islamists 84 years ago.
His arrest at his Meram Technical and Vocational high school in Konya, central Turkey, sparked an outcry, with opposition parties denouncing it as the latest example of the government’s descent toward authoritarianism and its crackdown on free speech and dissent.
It is a crime in Turkey to insult the President and others have been arrested on such charges before, but it was the first time a minor has been detained. Dozens of lawyers volunteered to defend the teen and petitioned for his release. At least three students were briefly detained during a protest on Dec. 24 to denounce his detention, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.
It wasn’t clear if the boy’s early release was connected to the huge publicity of the case. Officials insist Turkey’s judiciary is independent of the state and it is not uncommon for Turkish detainees to be released from custody quickly.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for the past decade as Prime Minister and as President since his election in August, was long regarded as a champion of democratic reforms. More recently, the Turkish leader has been accused of steering Turkey away from democracy by cracking down on protests, suppressing media freedoms and increasing police powers.
Earlier this month, police raided media outlets close to a movement led by a U.S.-based Muslim cleric — who is Erdogan’s strongest critic — and detained journalists and TV producers, a move that sparked U.S. and EU criticism.
“It is extremely difficult to speak of democracy, pluralism or say that the regime is a Republic in a country where children are arrested for their speech,” the Ankara Bar Association said in a statement.
The boy, who can only be identified by his initials M.E.A. because of Turkish laws that protect the identity of minors, made a speech during the rally in which he said the students didn’t regard Erdogan as the President, but as the “thieving owner of the illegal palace,” according to court papers seen by The Associated Press.
His words referred to a vast government corruption scandal that has implicated members of Erdogan’s family, as well as a controversial 1,150-room Presidential palace in the capital, Ankara, which Erdogan inaugurated in October.
Erdogan has depicted the scandal, which forced four government ministers to step down, as a “coup” orchestrated by the followers of the U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
The boy walked through the gates of a detention center in Konya after a court there agreed to free him from police custody on Dec. 26. The boy could still face up to four years in prison if he is charged and convicted. The Justice Ministry would however, need to give its consent for proceedings on insulting the President to go ahead.
The student denied during questioning that his words were intended as an insult to Erdogan, according to the court papers.
Video footage showed the boy being embraced by his mother as he emerged from custody. Dozens of his supporters sang and beat a drum in celebration of his release.
“We are not terrorists,” the boy said after his release. “When we took this path, we made a promise not to turn back. We shall not yield to the fascist, unprogressive pressure.”
Erdogan hasn’t specifically commented on the boy’s case, but asserted that media in Turkey was “more free” than the rest of the world because of the amount of “insults” that were being leveled at him or his family.
“Insults that would not be allowed in democratic countries are being made, that’s how free it is. I am experiencing this personally and with my family,” Erdogan said. “The insults are limitless.”
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had defended the boy’s detention, saying: “The Presidential office needs to be shown respect, no matter who he is.”
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party, welcomed his release saying it was “wrong for a child to be kept in custody even for a minute.”
“A child’s place is not prison,” the teenager’s mother, Nazmiye Gok, told reporters and supporters who gathered outside the detention center. “They need to be in school, sitting at their desks.”
“I am not ashamed of my child. I am proud of him,” she said.