Turkish authorities are charging two children, ages 12 and 13, with "insulting the Turkish president" after the two allegedly tore down posters bearing the face of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The children, two cousins who are not being identified by name, were first caught ripping up posters ahead of Turkish elections last June. On Wednesday, the prosecutor's office in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir announced that it would seek to put the boys behind bars for up to two years and four months, according to Hurriyet Daily.
"If the president is prosecuting two children who tore down a poster, it's very sad for justice," their lawyer, Ismail Korkmaz, said.
Last week, Turkish authorities detained a 14-year-old child for criticizing Erdogan on his Facebook page. He was released when prosecutors announced he was too young to stand trial. The prosecutor's office in Diyarbakir opted to move the proceedings against the two cousins trial to a children's court in order to continue pressing charges.
The developments come amid heightened political tension within the country ahead of elections on November 1, which Erdogan called after his Justice and Development Party, known as the AK Party, lost its majority in parliament in June and was unable to form a governing coalition. On Wednesday, Turkish authorities raided an opposition media company, shutting down two TV stations.
The previous election seemed to reflect flagging support for Erdogan, who wants parliament to amend the country's constitution to grant him greater power as president. The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, known as HDP, won parliament seats for the first time in June in an apparent rebuke of the president's authoritarian drift. The upcoming vote is seen as another referendum on Erdogan's political standing.
The boys in Diyarbakir are being prosecuted under Article 299 of the Turkish penal code, a provision that watchdogs have long criticized as a crude provision that is designed to stifle and discourage political dissent.
"It's used as a stick against anyone who dares criticize the president," said Nina Ognianova, the program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Project Journalists. What constitutes an insult, she noted, is not always clear.
"It's the million-dollar question," she added. "It could be a tweet. You don't have to necessarily even use the president's name — it's really up to the interpretation of authorities."
While Article 299 has been part of Turkey's penal code since 1926, Erdogan's administration has made a point of applying the law much more aggressively than his predecessors. Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul famously used the law to jail a number of prominent opposition newspaper editors, but the highly image-conscious Erdogan has ramped up enforcement to unprecedented levels, targeting all layers of society.
In the first seven months of his term, authorities investigated 236 individuals under the provision and indicted 105 of them. Erdogan has a team of lawyers who regularly file cases in local courts against those who dare criticize him.
"It's a completely arbitrary process," Ognianova said. "And more often than not, the courts side with the president."
This is not the first time Turkey has arrested a minor for insulting Erdogan. Last December, he pushed for the arrest of a 16-year-old student who gave a speech at a protest that was critical of the ruling AK Party. At the time, Erdogan's political ally and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, defended the arrest, saying that the presidency "needs to be shown respect." The boy was later released.
The dragnet extends to nearly all sectors of Turkish society. In February, authorities detained Merve Buyuksarac, a former Miss Turkey, for insulting Erdogan on Instagram when she posted a satirical poem from a Turkish magazine that poked fun at the president.
Earlier this month, the editor of a leading English-language newspaper in the country was also detained under the provision after he retweeted a statement made by a major Turkish opposition party. And just a day after 14-year-old UE was detained, Serkan Inci, the founder of a popular dictionary website, was arrested for insulting the president online, though it wasn't made clear what he had done to cause offense.
These arrests illustrate how Article 299 is abused by Turkish authorities in order to eliminate dissenting voices.
"There's a very large basket of legislation that are on the books in Turkey to persecute both citizens and journalists for expressing themselves " Ognianova said. "Authorities just pick and choose from a wide number of articles that are available to them."
The state's arbitrary enforcement of these provisions isn't limited to Turkish citizens. On August 27, Turkey detained and charged three VICE News journalists with abetting terrorism after the team entered a Kurdish zone in Turkey to report on the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK. One of them, an Iraqi journalist named Mohammed Ismael Rasool, remains in prison.
As a result of Erdogan's crackdown, the space for political speech in Turkey is in danger of shrinking.
"People are self-censoring," Ognianova said. "More and more we are seeing a witch-hunt against those who criticize the president or his policies."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro