Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned on Thursday that he will continue to sue critics who insult him in Turkey, where journalists and other critics of the president have been imprisoned.
He issued the admonition in Washington, a day before a hearing in Istanbul resumes in the trial of two high-profile Turkish journalists.
“I would [thank] each and everyone one of those who criticize me but if they were to insult me, my lawyers will go and file a lawsuit,” Erdogan said at an event on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.
As protesters chanted and waved banners outside, Turkish security personnel tried to block three Turkish journalists from covering the event, held at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Adem Yavuz Arslan, a reporter with Ozgur Dusunce — a Turkish opposition newspaper affiliated with U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally — said the security guards threatened him.
“They said, ‘We are going to kill you. You are a terrorist,'” said Arslan.
Since becoming president in August 2014, Erdogan has filed a record 1,845 court cases against individuals for insulting him, resulting in a more than a dozen sentences, activists have said.
Insulting the president carries a maximum of four years in prison in Turkey.
The New York-based advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists describes Turkey as a “country of concern” with at least 13 and as many 20 journalists in prison for their work.
Journalist to ‘pay a heavy price’
A Turkish court on Friday resumes hearings in the trial of the two journalists for publishing footage that purportedly showed Turkey’s intelligence agency shipping truckloads of weapons to opposition fighters in Syria in early 2014.
A prosecutor has charged Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, with trying to topple the government by publishing the video.
Erdogan, whose government has come under international criticism for restrictions of press freedom, vowed Dundar will “pay a heavy price”.
The two journalists could face life in prison if convicted. In his speech in Washington, Erdogan said there were no journalists in jail because of their work, adding that most of the 52 journalists in Turkish prisons have been convicted on or face terrorism charges.
Journalism rights groups say the government uses vague terrorism charges to silence journalists.