An Istanbul court has released Turkish pop star Gulsen from pretrial detention but put her under house arrest with judicial control on Monday over a remark she made about religious schools in Turkey.

The 46-year-old singer-songwriter, whose full name is Gulsen Colakoglu, was taken into custody for questioning on charges of “inciting hatred and enmity among the public” and put in pretrial detention last Thursday.

The charges were based on a joke she made onstage about Turkey’s religious Imam Hatip schools in April.

“He studied at an Imam Hatip [school] previously. That’s where his perversion comes from,” Gulsen says in a video of the incident, referring to a musician in her band.

The video was circulated by pro-government daily Sabah a day before her detention and widely shared on social media by pro-government accounts.

Several ministers condemned her words on Twitter, including Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.

“Inciting one part of society towards another using begrudging, hateful and discriminating language under the guise of being an artist is the biggest disrespect to art,” Bozdag tweeted.

Imam Hatips are state-run middle and high schools providing religious education for boys and girls ages 10 to 18 in Turkey. There are several graduates of Imam Hatip schools in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Cabinet, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bozdag.

The AKP government is a staunch supporter of Imam Hatip schools, as Erdogan has said in the past that he aims to raise a “pious generation” in Turkey.

In a statement on her social media accounts, Gulsen apologized for her remark, adding that what she said was used by some people who want to polarize society. She also denied the accusations in her testimony at the police station.

Her lawyer Emek Emre appealed the pretrial detention decision last Friday and said he will appeal the house arrest decision Monday.

Reactions

Her arrest has sparked controversy about Turkey’s freedom of expression and judicial independence.

Yigit Acar, a lawyer who specializes in freedom of expression and human rights violations, calls the court decision to keep her under house arrest “a disgrace.”

“This decision meets the wishes of a group of conservative people who are uncomfortable with her and are not a large group. Look at the court decision where the lynching campaign against Gulsen was used as a reason for the arrest,” Acar told VOA.

Acar believes that putting the singer under house arrest is intended to be a deterrent.

“The purpose has already been accomplished. The purpose was to keep Gulsen away from the stage and to make her modern, secular view invisible,” Acar said, adding that the government is sending a message to millions of people by putting the singer under house arrest.

The singer has long been a target of conservative circles in Turkey because of her revealing stage outfits and support for the LGBTQ community.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), called for her release, saying that her arrest was aimed at polarizing society to keep Erdogan’s government in power. The next parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for June 2023, but the opposition parties are calling for snap elections, which Erdogan has repeatedly rejected.

Responding to an inquiry from VOA on the pop star’s arrest, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said, “The right to exercise freedom of expression, even when it involves speech which some find controversial or uncomfortable, strengthens democracy and must be protected.”

“The United States remains concerned by widespread use of censorship, criminal insult suits, and other forms of judicial harassment to restrict freedom of expression in Turkey. We urge Turkey to respect and ensure freedom of expression,” the spokesperson said, adding that the U.S. “opposes discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons and those who support LGBTQI+ rights.”

The Turkish government has argued that the judiciary is free from political interference.

Cultural hegemony

Yuksel Taskin, deputy leader of the CHP and a former professor of political science at Istanbul’s Marmara University, argues that the singer’s arrest was part of the government’s efforts to establish cultural hegemony among the Turkish public through its ideological lens.

Taskin recalls Turkish presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun’s tweet from 2018: “Your political hegemony is over. Your cultural hegemony will also end,” referring to Turkey’s Kemalist elites before the AKP came into power. Kemalism, as an ideology, is based on the principles of modern Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which include secularism.

“A cultural hegemony based on intimidation and oppression has no chance to survive,” Taskin told VOA.

Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.

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