Turkey Violated an Artist’s Freedoms by Fining Him for Insulting the President, Europe’s Human Rights Court Has Ruled

The British artist was convicted and fined in 2010.

An artwork by Banksy in New York drawing attention to the imprisonment of Zehra Dogan, a Kurdish painter from Turkey. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

In the latest win for freedom of expression in Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the country violated the rights of a British artist by convicting him in 2010 for insulting president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through his artwork.

The court decided on February 2 that the conviction of artist Michael Dickinson violated his freedom of expression. Turkey was ordered to pay the artist €2,000 (around $2,400) in damages, according to a statement from the court. While the decision is a victory for human rights in Turkey, where Erdoğan has been eroding freedoms since he took the presidency in 2014, it came too late for the artist, who died last year, according to AFP.

Dickinson was a university lecturer and artist who exhibited a collage that criticized Erdoğan’s political support for the US occupation of Iraq during a protest in Istanbul in 2006. The work showed the then-prime minister’s head glued to the body of a dog wearing a red-white-and-blue leash, and bore the phrase “We Will Not Be Bush’s Dog.”

The artist was taken into custody a few months after the event and charged for what the court deemed an attack on the “honor and reputation” of the prime minister. In 2010, a Turkish court convicted Dickinson for the offense and ordered him to pay a €3,043 fine (around $3,600) for displaying the collage.

“I was only making a political statement, which people should be allowed to do,” Dickinson told AFP after the ruling.

Dickinson never paid the fine because the delivery of the court’s judgment was suspended for another five years, and the criminal proceedings were discontinued in 2015. Dickinson went on to complain about the criminal charges to the European Court of Human Rights, which has now confirmed that the conviction was unjust. 

The court’s decision is an important victory for artists in Turkey, which has been cracking down on artistic freedoms for years. The artist Zehra Dogan, who was imprisoned for her work several times between 2016 and 2019, has been outspoken about the oppressive regime. But the struggle is far from over. On the same day as the ruling in favor of Dickinson, five students were arrested for exhibiting an LGBT-themed artwork during a protest at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.

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