This 16-Year-Old Was Jailed For Criticizing Turkey’s President

Jan 08, 2015 at 1:35 PM ET

Until about a week ago, Mehmet Emin Altunses was a run-of-the-mill teenager. He likes computer games, soccer and hanging out with friends at cafés where they play Turkish folk music.

But now Mehmet has become a symbol of Turkey’s riding tide of authoritarianism and President Tayyip Erdogan’s intolerance for criticism—even if it happens to come from a 16-year-old.

Mehmet goes to vocational high school in Konya, a city in Turkey’s heartland. After school one day in late December, he got together with a group of friends and took part in a street protest against Erdogan’s Islamist-based rule, which Mehmet thinks is ruining secular education. There were around 50 to 60 people at the protest, which lasted around 20 minutes. Other than that, it was uneventful.

Protests have become an increasingly common feature of Turkish life over the past 18 months, as Erdogan has scored victories in local and presidential elections, but also cracked down on opponents and provoked complaints from the U.S. and EU after his government derailed a corruption inquiry by prosecutors.

But as Mehmet was about to learn, demonstrating against Turkey’s strongman can be a dangerous business—thousands of people, including students, are being prosecuted for taking part in 2013 mass protests. Those demonstrations were sparked by plans to demolish Istanbul’s central Gezi Park, but soon became about Erdogan’s rule itself.

One day after Mehmet’s street protest, he went to school as usual around 7:30 a.m. Two hours later, in the middle of his mechanical design class, two policemen turned up at the classroom and took him away. “I was not expecting to be arrested at school,” the 16-year-old tells me over the phone. He recognized a police officer from the previous day’s protest, and one of them told him: “You know why we are here, right?”

Mehmet wound up in solitary confinement at a regular jail, rather than being taken to a detention center for minors. He says he didn’t cry or scream out of fear, but being locked up for two days was hard on him.

“To kill time, I kept on measuring the size of the cell,” says Mehmet, who is tall with brown eyes and brown hair. “It was 13 steps long and seven steps wide.”

“One night felt like a year,” he says. “I was mainly concerned about my mother, who was very sad.”  Mehmet says the school teacher called his parents to let them know what happened when the police picked him up from school. Mehmet still faces trial for insulting the president, a criminal offense in Turkey, and he could get up to four years in prison.

So what exactly did he do to warrant such treatment?

The protest was intended to commemorate Mustafa Fehmi Kubilay, a Turkish army officer who was beheaded by Islamists on Dec. 23, 1930. Kubilay has become something of a martyr among Turkish secularists. During the demonstration, Mehmet read a statement denouncing Erdogan as the “thieving owner of an illegal palace.” It was a reference to the derailed corruption investigation—which targeted four of Erdogan’s then-ministers and his own son, among others—and to president’s $600 million-plus, 1,150-room presidential palace, which he built despite a court order prohibiting construction on protected forest land.

Mehmet’s little gathering rankled the government because it took place in Konya, long a bastion of Erdogan’s ruling party, the AKP. I asked Mehmet if he has any links with any political party, and he tells me that he is only 16. But he says he is a member of an online group called Democratic High School Students, which was inspired by the 2013 protests, in which he participated.

“We want fair, free and secular education,” says Mehmet. “And we have many student supporters from different backgrounds: liberals, nationalists, religious, even rockers.”

Baris Ispir, Mehmet’s lawyer, still seems baffled by the speed of the whole process. “It is not reasonable to imprison a child under the relevant laws,” he tells Vocativ. “The police filmed my client during his speech, they filed a complaint, he was arrested the next day, the prosecutor saw him right away, and the court decided on his incarceration.

“It seems like political pressure.”

Dozens of lawyers joined Ispir to help Mehmet; around 100 of them signed a petition for his release, which was granted a couple of days after he was arrested. In the meantime, opposition party politicians have taken up his case, causing an uproar in social media.

Translation: “A 16-year-old child said the king is naked and has been arrested.”

Translation: “A 16-year-old kid was arrested because of insulting the president. This is beyond satire.”

Still, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made clear that he supports the court’s decision to imprison the boy. “Everyone must respect the office of president,” Davutoglu told the Turkish press.

Mehmet says he wants to focus on his university entrance examinations, but his future is now in the hands of Turkey’s justice ministry. For Mehmet himself, there’s no turning back the clock, he says. “When I walk around in school or outside, I hear people whispering about me,” he says. “I am more popular now; people started talking politics with me, and I like that.”

“I was dreaming of becoming an engineer, but maybe after what happened, I should become a lawyer.”