An Istanbul court on Thursday sentenced two prominent Turkish journalists to two years behind bars for illustrating their columns with a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed published by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The sentence, which was handed to two columnists from the opposition Cumhuriyet daily, intensified alarm over press freedoms in Turkey under strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made Islam the cornerstone of his politics.
“The two journalists were sentenced to two years each in jail,” said Bulent Utku, lawyer for Hikmet Cetinkaya and Ceyda Karan.
“We will appeal the ruling at the appeals court,” Utku told AFP following a hearing at Istanbul’s criminal court.
The pair went on trial in January last year on charges of “inciting public hatred” and “insulting religious values” after illustrating their columns with the controversial cartoon.
After the verdict, those who initiated the lawsuit shouted “Allahu Akbar” -- Arabic for ‘God is the greatest’ -- Cumhuriyet reported on its website.
On January 14, 2015, Cumhuriyet had published a four-page Charlie Hebdo pullout translated into Turkish marking the French satirical weekly’s first issue since a deadly attack on its Paris offices by Islamist gunmen earlier that month.
The edition did not include the controversial front cover featuring Prophet Mohammed, but a smaller version of the cartoon was included twice inside the newspaper to illustrate columns on the subject by Karan and Cetinkaya.
Most other media in Turkey had refrained from publishing the cover.
When the edition was published, the daily received threats and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned the publication of cartoons of the Muslim prophet as an “open provocation”.
Days before Cumhuriyet printed its special pullout edition, Davutoglu had joined dozens of other world leaders in a march of solidarity in memory of the 17 victims killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks and elsewhere in Paris.
Cumhuriyet, which staunchly opposes the Islamic-rooted government of Erdogan, has been regularly targeted by prosecutions as concerns grow over freedom of speech in Turkey.
Its editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul are currently on trial on charges of revealing state secrets and could face multiple life sentences if found guilty.
Writing on her Twitter account @ceydak, Karan lashed out at the Turkish government, saying: “Let our two-year sentence be a gift for our liberal fascists #JeSuisCharlie.”
In the contentious cartoon, the prophet sheds a tear and holds a sign with the viral slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), in a gesture of apparent repentance after the Paris killings.
Most Muslims consider portraying the prophet in images to be blasphemous.
There has been growing concern about the numbers of journalists currently facing legal proceedings in Turkey, many on accusations of insulting Erdogan.
Trials for insulting Erdogan have multiplied since his election to the presidency in August 2014, with nearly 2,000 such cases currently open.
Reporters Without Borders slammed the verdict on its official Twitter account as “shameful” and “unbearable.”
In a show of solidarity, women’s rights group Femen published on its Turkish Twitter account a picture of a topless activist holding a Charlie Hebdo cartoon with “Karan and Cetinkaya are not alone” written on her torso.
The latest case comes as Europe looks to Ankara to implement a key deal to curb the flow of migrants seeking to reach the European Union from Turkish shores.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spearheaded the agreement, has been accused of compromising on EU’s basic values on press freedom to win Turkey’s cooperation.