The freedom of a Turkish doctor facing a two-year prison sentence could be determined by Tolkien lore, use of memes, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.
Doctor Bilgin Çiftçi was fired from his job at the Public Health Institution of Turkey in October, and is currently on trial for insulting the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His “crime” was posting images comparing Erdoğan to Tolkien character Gollum. There’s only one problem: the pictures are in fact of Smeagol, the “good side” of the tragic figure’s split personality when not under the influence of the One Ring. And the difference between the two is tearing Turkey’s legal system apart.
Insulting a public figure is a crime in Turkey, where Erdoğan has attracted growing opposition for increased authoritarianism, violent crackdowns on protestors and faced corruption charges. He has also regularly interfered with the press and shown little tolerance for unflattering depictions.
But whether Çiftçi’s supposed slur was even a crime under Turkish law has confused the courts, with the chief judge presiding over the fourth hearing of the case at the Aydın 3rd Criminal Court of First Instance calling for an expert examination into the character of Gollum. The case currently hangs on the difference between Smeagol and Gollum. Basically, if it decides they are of Smeagol (which as any Tolkein fan will tell you, they are), then Çiftçi hasn’t compared Erdoğan to a corrupted monster myopically obsessed with a single vision at the expense of all else, just a friendly ally of Samwise and Frodo who happens to love raw fish.
The court has ordered that examination be conducted by a five-person group, comprising academics, behavioral scientists or psychologists and an expert on cinema and television productions. Here’s where it gets good, because those “experts” include The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director, Peter Jackson, and his screenwriters on the films, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
The move to clarify came about after Çiftçi’s lawyer, Hicran Danışman, asked judges whether they had seen the Lord of the Rings movies. They hadn’t — or at most “only parts” of them — and agreed that their lack of familiarity with the character or his portrayal left them ill-equipped to pass judgement on the case. This is important, as the court’s verdict on whether or not Erdoğan was insulted by the comparison could see Çiftçi locked up. The prosecutor in the case had not seen the films either, reports Turkish news site Today’s Zaman.
Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens have issued a joint statement on the depictions in question, saying “If the images are in fact the ones forming the basis of this Turkish lawsuit, we can state categorically: None of them feature the character known as Gollum. All of them are images of the character called Smeagol.”
“Smeagol is a joyful, sweet character. Smeagol does not lie, deceive, or attempt to manipulate others. He is not evil, conniving, or malicious — these personality traits belong to Gollum, who should never be confused with Smeagol,” Walsh further clarified. “Smeagol would never dream of wielding power over those weaker than himself. He is not a bully. In fact he’s very loveable. This is why audiences all over the world have warmed to his character.”
Rather more chillingly, the defence is relying on this rather nerdy point of contention because efforts to exempt Çiftçi on freedom of expression grounds were going “nowhere”. The case is ongoing, with judges yet to weigh in on Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens’ distinctions between Smeagol and Gollum.