By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In an injustice to both the liberty of a Kurdish man and free speech in general a court in Turkey handed down thirteen year sentence to a defendant accused of removing a Turkish flag at a military base near Diyarbakir, Turkey. The disproportionate sentence followed an outraged Recep Erdogan who declared after the act, “[w]e don’t care if he is a child. Even if a child dares to take down our sacred flag both him and those who send him there will pay a price.”
The subject incident occurred in June of 2014 following a clash in Diyarbakir between Kurdish protestors and Turkish soldiers in the Kurd populated east. The protesters voiced their grievances over what they believed to be an increasingly overbearing and domineering presence of the Turkish military within their homeland and the subjugation of their fellow citizens. Sadly, the protests turned violent and two protesters died in the tumult.
Resulting from the deaths, protests continued including the incident where one masked participant climbed a flagpole and removed the national flag, an act of defiance and protest.
The event though garnered considerable outrage, including both sides of the Kurdish issue. Erdogan, then Prime Minister, ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate.
Imprisoned PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) leader Abdulla Ocalan stated “We do not behave hurtfully toward symbols of any country,” and expressed his belief this was a provocative act. Similar statements followed from political leaders following news of the event that dominated Turkish media afterward.
When prodded into an investigation by any senior politician, one certainly can worry how fair the criminal justice system will actually be.
The courts ordered the arrest of Defendant Ömer Mutlu on August 9 of last year and this Friday handed down the thirteen year-nine month sentence.
It often follows when a society demotes a person to pariah levels, any punishments exacted upon them become harsh and insensitive. In the case of Mr. Mutlu, he received in his act of protest the full burden of outrage and vindictiveness within the populace. It undoubtedly weighed heavier upon one of the scales of justice for which he probably fared no chance of balance or proportionality to his transgression.
The flag and symbol of the Turkish Republic is certainly not one to deny the citizens of Turkey and its standing internationally, and that of course should be understood and respected as it is their right to embrace such beliefs.
We as Americans struggled with the same issue to some degree and the change our society experienced with flag desecration laws being eventually held unconstitutional when prosecuted against acts of free speech.
In the 1907 decision of Haller v. Nebraska the Supreme Court upheld a state law barring two businessmen from including an American flag on their beer products but began to move toward the notion of flags being a form of free speech in 1931 when it struck down a California law banning the flying of a red flag to protest the government.
Congress though in reacting to Vietnam War protests enacted in 1968 the Federal Flag Desecration Law. The law made it illegal to “knowingly” cast “contempt” upon “any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling upon it.”
However, years later the Court ruled in Spence v. Washington that the act of applying a peace symbol to the private property American flag of the defendant was a form of protected free speech. Despite several states modifying their laws to accommodate the Court’s 1989 decision in Texas v. Johnson effectively ended criminal actions against those engaging in flag burning as free speech.
There are similarities between the cases of Mr. Mutlu and Gregory Lee Johnson. (From the decision)
While the Republican National Convention was taking place in Dallas in 1984, respondent Johnson participated in a political demonstration dubbed the “Republican War Chest Tour.” As explained in literature distributed by the demonstrators and in speeches made by them, the purpose of this event was to protest the policies of the Reagan administration and of certain Dallas-based corporations. The demonstrators marched through the Dallas streets, chanting political slogans and stopping at several corporate locations to stage “die-ins” intended to dramatize the consequences of nuclear war. On several occasions they spray-painted the walls of buildings and overturned potted plants, but Johnson himself took no part in such activities. He did, however, accept an American flag handed to him by a fellow protestor who had taken it from a flagpole outside one of the targeted buildings.
The demonstration ended in front of Dallas City Hall, where Johnson unfurled the American flag, doused it with kerosene, and set it on fire. While the flag burned, the protestors chanted, “America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you.” After the demonstrators dispersed, a witness to the flag burning collected the flag’s remains and buried them in his backyard. No one was physically injured or threatened with injury, though several witnesses testified that they had been seriously offended by the flag burning.
Of the approximately 100 demonstrators, Johnson alone was charged with a crime. The only criminal offense with which he was charged was the desecration of a venerated object in violation of Texas Penal Code Ann. § 42.09(a)(3) (1989). [n1] After a trial, he was convicted, sentenced to one year in prison, and fined $2,000.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority opined:
The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result,” Kennedy said. “And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision. This is one of those rare cases.”
“Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”
Miffed and feeling jilted, Congress reacted by enacting the Flag Protection act of 1989 which, predictably, was struck down by the Court in 1990. Congress still occasionally attempts to bypass the ruling. In fact the Senate nearly voted to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban flag desecration.
Turkey is as a society struggling with this and other issues related to free speech, but one has to question if the removal of a rectangular shaped canvas atop a pole justifies depriving a man of his freedom for over thirteen years and the upheaval of his life and that of his family. It truly becomes a political crime at this degree.
Though is easy to castigate a stranger into a pariah, the requisite outrage becomes quite tempered when the stone thrower’s freedom is stripped for insulting Stars and Stripes or Stars and Crescents.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.