This email, uncovered by Dutch news organizations Thursday, has sparked anger in the Netherlands, with the Dutch prime minister demanding an explanation from Turkish authorities. To Turkey’s critics, the message seems to show that Erdogan, long accused of cracking down on dissent domestically, was now abusing antiquated European laws in a bid to silence his international critics.
“I am surprised,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in Germany during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “It’s not clear what the Turkish government aims to achieve with this action.”
The news of the email comes less than a week after Merkel herself announced that she would allow Jan Boehmermann, a German comedian and writer known for his acerbic style, to be prosecuted for a poem he had read on television about Erdogan. Boehmermann’s poem was designed to crudely mock the Turkish president, accusing him of sex with goats and saying that Erdogan loved to “repress minorities, kick Kurds and beat Christians while watching child porn.”
According to German prosecutors, at least 20 “private individuals” had filed complaints against Boehmermann after his poem aired on state broadcaster ZDF. At the request of the Turkish government, Boehmermann will now be prosecuted under section 103 of the German penal code, a section that decrees “whosoever insults a foreign head of state … shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine.”
Merkel has suggested that while her government will now work to change the law to remove this section, she had to respect the law as it stood. The Netherlands has similar “lèse-majesté” laws against insulting foreign heads of states, which is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison, though Dutch lawmakers are now working to remove them. Within Turkey, critics of the government have complained that since becoming president in 2014, Erdogan has abused a law that bars insults to the president, with almost 2,000 cases opened in less than two years.
While these cases have caused controversy, they also enjoy support from many in Turkey: One Turkish man facing charges for allegedly assaulting his fiancee recently suggested that the assault was sparked by his partner’s insult to the Turkish president. According to Hurriyet Daily News, the man’s fiancee was called by police to testify about the alleged insult to Erdogan, which she denied making.
The Turkish Embassy in the Netherlands has attempted to downplay the controversy about the recent email, suggesting that the message was being misunderstood and that they only wanted organizations to email the consulate to report racism or hate speech. According to a translation from the BBC, the letter had read: “We ask urgently for the names and written comments of people who have given derogatory, disparaging, hateful and defamatory statements against the Turkish president, Turkey and Turkish society in general.”
There are about 400,000 people with Turkish origin in the Netherlands, and representatives of Turkish opposition parties say that critics of Erdogan have expressed concern that they could be targeted. On Twitter, Sadet Karabulut, a Dutch politician of Kurdish descent, dubbed the controversy a sign of “Erdogan’s long arm in the Netherlands.”