Istanbul: Turkey’s most popular comedian went on trial Monday accused of insulting a provincial governor, the latest in a string of such court cases seen as clamping down on free speech in the country.
Cem Yilmaz, who is also an award-winning actor, is facing up to two years in jail for a series of tweets criticising the governor of northwestern Yalova province over the death of a mathematics teacher.
The governor, Selim Cebiroglu, had harshly berated a mathematics teacher in March last year in front of his students over his clothes and beard, saying he could be “mistaken for a beggar”.
The teacher, Halil Serkan Oz, 42, died of a heart attack a week later at a protest against the governor.
After his death, Yilmaz tweeted: “Crushing a man by using the power of an official position and fatally breaking his heart... What a shame that the poor teacher died. May you rise to even more important positions, Mr Governor!”
Yilmaz was not in court on Monday, however his lawyer Rengin Gonenc Yuksel argued that the comedian “had not committed any crime”, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency.
“At no point in his tweet does he say ‘you did it’. What he did was criticise,” the lawyer said, adding that Yilmaz was commenting “in his capacity as a humorist, an artist.”
Many similar cases are under way in Turkey, mostly against those charged with insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been accused of brooking no criticism and sliding towards authoritarianism.
“Leaders must be more tolerant towards criticism,” said Yuksel.
The court cases have raised concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey and Erdogan has also been accused of seeking to muzzle the press, NGOs and academics.
US President Barack Obama warned last week that Turkey’s approach towards the media was taking it “down a path that would be very troubling” after two journalists were put on trial.
In response Erdogan defiantly declared he would not take “lessons in democracy” from the West.
The comedian Yilmiz is a household name who has won several awards for his roles in movies in Turkey, and also starred alongside Russel Crowe in the 2014 movie “The Water Diviner” set after the end of World War I.
He is also a musician and a cartoonist.