Germany Lets Turkey File Criminal Charges Against TV Comedian Over "Slander Poem"

Courtesy of ZDF
Jan Bohmermann

If found guilty, Jan Bohmermann, whose explicit rhyme mocked the Turkish president, could face prison time.

The German government will let Turkey pursue criminal charges against a John Oliver-style TV satirist accused of insulting Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday said she had granted a request by the Turkish government to pursue prosecution of comedian Jan Bohmermann, who wrote a crude poem about Erdogan that he read out live on his weekly news satire show Neo Magazin Royale.

Bohmermann could be prosecuted under an almost forgotten law still on the books here which makes it a crime to insult the head of state of a foreign country. The last time the law was invoked, it was by the Shah of Iran in the 1960s.

Merkel said Friday her government intends to repeal the law by 2018. She added that the decision in favor of Turkey's action, "means neither a prejudgment of the person affected nor a decision about the limits of freedom of art, the press and opinion." She also stressed the independence of the German judiciary and the presumption of innocence.

All that won't, however, help Bohmermann who, if Turkey decides to pursue the case, could face charges carrying a maximum sentence of three years in jail. A court can increase the penalty to five years if it finds the insult was a deliberate act.

The case has ignited a furious debate over freedom of speech in Germany, with the majority, according to polls, supporting Bohmermann and rejecting Merkel's position. The debate comes as Germany is relying on Turkey to reduce the influx of migrants to Europe. Following Merkel's plan, the European Union has agreed to pay Turkey around $6 billion in aid, along with other political concessions, in exchange for Turkey taking back Syrian refugees from Europe.

Bohmermann, 35, read out the poem on German public broadcaster ZDF two weeks ago. He contrasted it with a satirical song aired by another German channel that also mocked the Turkish president and which Erdogan had demanded be removed from the web.

Addressing Erdogan directly, Bohmermann explained the concept of satire to the Turkish president, explaining what was, and wasn't allowed in Germany. He then read out his poem, as an example, he said, of what "would never be allowed in Germany."

The explicit rhyme, among other things, calls the Turkish leader "a goat f—er" who "kicks Kurds and slaps Christians while watching kiddie porn."

ZDF quickly pulled the video off its website, though the network said it has received a flood of emails from viewers demanding it be put back up. Meanwhile, public prosecutors in Mainz, the German city where ZDF is based, said they have received hundreds of complaints filed against the network and Bohmermann himself. President Erdogan, in his capacity as a private person, has also filed a separate defamation suit against the comedian.

Bohmermann canceled his show this week but said, through his lawyer, that he wouldn't sign a cease-and-desist order as requested by Erdogan's lawyer.