A court in Turkey sentenced pop star Gülşen Bayraktar Çolakoğlu, widely known by her first name only, to ten months in prison on Wednesday for a joke mocking Islamist religious schools.
The court issued a “suspended” sentence, meaning Gülşen will likely not have the serve the term unless she is found guilty of “inciting hatred” again in a separate case within the next five years, according to the outlet Turkish Minute. The singer served four days in prison and two weeks of house arrest in August following a clip of her making the joke going viral.
Turkish pop singer given suspended sentence for insulting religious school graduates https://t.co/uyLuEynUOP
— Turkish Minute (@TurkishMinuteTM) May 3, 2023
In Turkey, “if the prison sentence is less than two years, the announcement of the verdict is delayed for five years and has no legal consequences. If the convict does not commit a crime within the supervision period, the decision is annulled,” the national newspaper Hurriyet explained Wednesday.
Turkish law criminalizes “inciting hatred” against religious groups through speech. Turks enjoy very limited free speech rights, as the penal code forbids actions such as “insulting the president” or criticizing the founder of the Turkish Republic and architect of the Armenian genocide, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Gülşen reportedly made the offending comments during practice on stage alongside her band in April 2022, joking that one of its members had gone to an “imam-hatip” school.
Famous singer convicted on ‘inciting hatred’https://t.co/iTumQbCp2p pic.twitter.com/KKiRqKlDuF
— Hürriyet Daily News (@HDNER) May 3, 2023
“He studied at an Imam Hatip previously. That’s where his perversion comes from,” the singer can be heard saying in the viral video.
Imam-hatip schools are Islamic religious schools whose operation had been widely discouraged under secularist governments but now, under Islamist current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have become increasingly popular, Erdogan himself attended such a school. Video of her joke surfaced on social media in August 2022 and resulted in her arrest and brief imprisonment.
Erdogan, at a political rally in August, appeared to confirm that Gülşen would face legal repercussions for her joke. Without naming her, the president asserted, “those who insult the sacred values of our nation will not be able to get away from being held accountable both in common conscience and before the law.”
“In recent days, we have seen that the provocations against our brotherhood have reached a very serious level, targeting our places of worship and Imam Hatip schools,” he warned. “As a nation, we will not be provoked and intimidated again.”
In her defense, Gülşen insisted that the remarks were joking in nature and made privately, not an attempt at broadcasting political or religious speech or inciting the public to oppose the schools.
“This was not a speech I made to participants of the concert or the media,” Hurriyet quoted her as saying.
Singer Gülşen jailed over religious school remarkshttps://t.co/4z6Q4tY81C pic.twitter.com/eFi281UIbq
— Hürriyet Daily News (@HDNER) August 26, 2022
Speaking to the secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet on Wednesday, Gülşen’s attorney, Emre Emek, criticized the court for apparently charging the pop star under one law, but sentencing her under another.
“Ms. Gülşen was tried under [one law], but the ruling was made according to [another law]. If another criminal element arises next to the one specified in the indictment, under normal circumstances, additional defense rights are granted, which were not [in this case],” the newspaper quoted Emek as saying. “I am very surprised as a lawyer, I have not come across anything like this before.”
Emek confirmed his client would appeal on the grounds of such an irregularity and on the fact that, given Gülşen’s lack of a criminal record, the court should have erred on the side of a lower prison sentence.
Prior to the imam-hatip scandal, Gülşen had long developed a reputation for opposing the Erdogan regime’s interpretation of Islamic values, often appearing scantily clad in videos and championing the cause of gay rights in Turkey. Her latest video before the scandal, published in March 2022, shows the singer in handcuffs and a prison cell.
The singer has posed with rainbow flags and produced a video in communist Cuba, a left-wing regime that, ironically, Erdogan has maintained friendly ties with through their mutual ally, socialist Venezuela.
At the time of her initial arrest, Gülşen received enthusiastic support from Turkey’s entertainment industry, which is largely based in secularist Istanbul and does not form part of Erdogan’s core voter base.
“Our legal system – which turns a blind eye to corruption, thieves, those who break the law and massacre nature, those who kill animals and those who use religion to polarize society through their bigoted ideas – has arrested Gülşen in one whack,” Tarkan, one of Turkey’s most prominent male singers, lamented last year.
“I deeply regret the arrest of the artist Gülşen. She was targeted for boldly advocating for women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, secularism, democracy, and pluralism. This is a lynching campaign. It is neither lawful nor conscientious. Free at once,” British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak said on Twitter.
Turkey is in the final stages of a heated presidential election. Erdogan, polls show, is facing the stiffest competition of his presidential career against challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP). Surveys published this weekend show Kılıçdaroğlu leading Erdogan by a narrow two points, likely setting up a rematch in a runoff election on May 28. The initial round of voting occurs on May 14; to win the presidency outright, a candidate must receive upwards of 50 percent of the vote.
Last year, Kılıçdaroğlu condemned Gülşen’s arrest, accusing Erdogan of attempting to “set our youth against each other” by inspiring outrage towards the singer’s joke.
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