Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Satire Feud, Turkey's Erdogan Finds Unlikely Ally In An Obscure German Law

A combo photo of German satirist Jan Boehmermann (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Boehermann called Erdogan a "professional idiot" and suggested he engaged in bestiality.

Critics often charge Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with having a sultan's mentality due to his intolerance of criticism and frequent jailing of journalists.

So perhaps it is appropriate that Erdogan asked Berlin to use an antiquated German law that forbids citizens from insulting foreign leaders to prosecute a German satirist who ridiculed him.

Just days after TV comedian and satirist Jan Boehmermann read a poem on air on March 31 calling Erdogan a "professional idiot" and suggesting he engaged in bestiality, the Turkish leader demanded that the German Foreign Office take Boehmermann to court under the rarely applied Section 103 of the German penal code.

The little-known section, which provides for imprisonment of up to five years, dates to an era when Europe's monarchs took a dim view of people attacking their personal dignity or that of other noble rulers. Erdogan's request to apply the provision in his case has now suddenly brought the law out of obscurity and onto center stage as the latest crisis -- after the Greek debt debacle, the migrant crisis, and the specter of a Brexit -- to face German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The law has its roots in the Prussian legal code of 1794, which expressly forbids attacks on the person or honor of foreign rulers, according to Holger Heinen, a lawyer who researched the law for his doctoral thesis.

He notes that an article in the Prussian legal code stated that anyone who insults a foreign leader or ambassador should be treated as a criminal because such insults could become a pretext for a foreign power to launch reprisals against Prussia.

The crime of questioning the majesty of a monarch, known as Lèse Majesté, lost much of its utility as Europe developed parliamentary democracies. But the provision still found its way into the German legal code that entered into force in 1871.

Since then, the law has had a curious history of occasionally being invoked but rarely being applied.

In one case, the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, asked West Germany to use Section 103 to punish protesters who demonstrated during his visit to West Berlin in 1967 -- protests in which one student was killed by police. But the shah later dropped his request after a conciliatory visit by the German interior minister to Tehran.

More recently, the United States asked the German government in 2003 to prosecute a shop owner in the central city of Marburg who called then-President George W. Bush a "state terrorist" and otherwise criticized him at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, the attorney general's office in Frankfurt decided the shop owner's statements did not constitute a criminal act.

"Since its introduction in Germany, the section has never had great practical relevance," says Heinen. "Between 1997 and 2000, there were never more than two convictions annually, and they always resulted only in the offending person being fined."

The question now is whether Erdogan's complaint could somehow become an exception to the rule that Section 103 is only lightly applied.

Merkel, whose partnership with Erdogan on the migrant crisis has already come under political fire in Germany due to Ankara's poor human rights record, announced with reluctance on April 15 that her government would seek prosecution in the case. She noted that opinions varied within the governing coalition on the proper course to take.

But she also pledged that the German government would eliminate Section 103 by 2018.

With RFE/RL correspondent Pete Baumgartner in Prague and reporting by AFP, dpa, and Reuters