Page last updated at 21:15 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Artist defiant despite fine for Turkish PM 'mockery'

By Jonathan Head
Istanbul correspondent, BBC News

Michael Dickinson
The country's criminal code includes an article on insulting 'Turkishness'

A British artist whose collage was found to have mocked Turkey's prime minister has been fined by a court in Istanbul.

Michael Dickinson walked smiling from the Kadikoy district court, a free man, but not completely off the hook.

The judge ruled that the British artist had crossed the line with his cartoon, superimposing the head of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on the body of a dog, and found him guilty of insulting Mr Erdogan's "dignity and honour".

The judge sentenced him to 425 days in prison, the first time anyone has been jailed for criticising the prime minister.

But the sentence was immediately commuted to a fine of about £3,000.

When a defiant Mr Dickinson insisted he would not pay, the judge explained that, provided he made no new cartoons of the prime minister over the next five years, the fine would be put aside.

"Of course I'm relieved", he told the BBC outside the court.

"I didn't know what to expect. But I still don't think I should have been guilty, and I'm not saying I'm not going to make any more cartoons of politicians."

It has been quite a legal saga for the 59-year-old teacher, writer, anti-war activist and founder of the Istanbul branch of the Stuckist art movement.

'Best in Show'

He was originally charged under the draconian article 125 of the Turkish criminal code in June 2006, after exhibiting a collage titled "Best in Show".

It showed George W Bush leaning over and tying a bow around the neck of a dog with Mr Erdogan's head on it, as a critique of Turkey's alliance with the United States.

At least in Britain I could make satirical pictures of Gordon Brown and not go to jail
Michael Dickinson

The case against Mr Dickinson, originally from County Durham, was dropped, but outside court he displayed a similar cartoon to journalists, in protest he said against the prosecution of his Turkish colleagues.

When that case finally came to court in September 2008 he was acquitted - but the verdict was overthrown on appeal by a state prosecutor.

The prosecutor insisted the crime was so serious that Mr Dickinson must do time in prison.

The judge seems to have found a way out of the potentially embarrassing scenario of a foreign artist being put behind bars for offending the prime minister.

Nevertheless the case will ring alarm bells with human rights groups documenting what they say are multiple attacks on freedom of expression in Turkey.

Some originate with the famously thin-skinned prime minister himself.

Michael Dickinson is not the first cartoonist, for example, to be sued for depicting Mr Erdogan as an animal.

One notable edition of the satirical magazine Penguen in 2005 had him represented as no fewer than nine animals - that case was thrown out by the judge, but Mr Erdogan has won thousands of pounds in damages over the years.

'I like it here'

But journalists and writers often face far more serious charges.

One article in the criminal code - the infamous "301" on insulting "Turkishness" - has been used to prosecute award-winning novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak, and Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered by a Turkish nationalist in 2007.

Powerful prosecutors are prepared to go after any journalist deemed to be sympathetic to terrorist groups.

Last month a Kurdish journalist was jailed for 21 years because his paper used a respectful term of address when describing the jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Another Kurdish journalist is facing up to 525 years in prison on similar charges.

Also last month, the editor of a well-known newspaper website was freed after spending 10 months in prison, suspected only because she had met the leader of an extreme left-wing group.

By those standards Michael Dickinson can count himself lucky.

So what are his plans now? He went back to the UK last year, after 24 years in Turkey, but says he did not like his native country much.

"I like it here, I like the food, the people, the weather", he said.

"But at least in Britain I could make satirical pictures of Gordon Brown and not go to jail."



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Turkish fine over 'PM as dog' art
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Turkey PM 'insult' artist cleared
25 Sep 08 |  England

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