Lawyers of two veteran celebrities speak to media in front of Istanbul Anadolu courthouse building on March 1, 2021 at Kartal district in Istanbul, after a verdict trial of their clients on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan AFP
An Istanbul court on Monday delivered a rare victory to freedom of expression advocates in Turkey by acquitting two veteran actors of "insulting" President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The case against Mujdat Gezen and Metin Akpinar -- both in their late 70s and mainstays of Turkish television and film -- was seen by their supporters as another example of Erdogan's sweeping clampdown on political dissent.
The two could have been sentenced to up to four years and eight months in prison if convicted for the comments they made on opposition Halk TV in 2018.
Gezen and Akpinar used their show to speak out against a crackdown Erdogan unleashed after surviving a coup attempt in 2016. Since then, tens of thousands have either been jailed or dismissed from their government jobs.
"If we don't become a (democracy)... the leader might end up getting strung up by his legs or poisoned in the cellar," Akpinar said on air.
Gezen told Erdogan: "Know your place."
The presiding judge ruled that Gezen and Akpinar should be acquitted of the charges "because the objective elements of the offence did not emerge" in court.
The investigation into the two men was launched immediately after Erdogan hit out at "so-called artists" who publicly attack his rule.
"They should be brought to account for this by the judiciary," Erdogan said at the time.
"We cannot leave this business without giving a response, they will pay the price."
- 'Sword of Damocles' -
Both Gezen and Akpinar were shielding at home from the coronavirus and did not appear in court.
But Gezen told AFP by telephone that he did not feel vindicated by the acquittal.
"This case should not have been filed in the first place," Gezen said.
"If the president opens a case against you for saying 'know your place' -- an expression he himself uses almost every day -- it is out of the question to talk about democracy in Turkey."
Gezen is a poet and theatre actor whose prolific career has included a role as a goodwill ambassador in Turkey for the UNICEF children's relief fund.
Akpinar founded what is believed to have been the first cabaret theatre in Turkey and has played comedy roles in dozens of popular Turkish films.
But the actors' acquittal "doesn't mean everything is rosy in Turkey", Gezen's lawyer told reporters.
"The shadow of politics over the judiciary is still there," said attorney Celal Ulgen.
"Unfortunately, the sword of Damocles still hangs over opponents, intellectuals and opinion leaders".
Main opposition CHP party lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu agreed.
"Politicians, especially the president, should be more tolerant of criticism," the lawmaker told reporters. "This is a basic rule.