ANKARA - An alarming number of Turks from students to celebrities are facing criminal charges over draconian laws prohibiting insult or disrespect to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fuelling criticism that they are aimed at stifling dissent.
Erdogan's opponents accuse him of increasing megalomania, and the authorities of setting up a cult of personality around the man who has ruled Turkey either as president or prime minister since 2003.
A 16-year-old student is due to go on trial on Friday in the central Anatolian city of Konya in a case seen as the latest sign of a lurch to authoritarianism.
The teenager Mehmet Emin Altunses was arrested in December in the middle of lessons at school and taken for interrogation by police for calling Erdogan the "chief of theft" during a student protest.
A court later ordered his release but he risks up to four years in prison if convicted.
The case has further undermined the right of freedom of speech in Turkey and a sharp increase in the number of lawsuits has tarnished the EU hopeful country's image -- already tainted with several journalists languishing behind bars and its blanket bans on social media.
Lawyer Benan Molu of the Istanbul Bar Association said since Erdogan's election as president in August, at least 84 people have been charged with insulting him and for speaking their mind in public or on social media.
"I've been a human rights activist for more than 20 years now but I cannot remember a worse period for freedom of expression in Turkey," said Sebla Arcan, the Istanbul head of Turkey's Human Rights Association.
Erdogan has enjoyed overwhelming electoral support since he came to power in 2003 but his reputation as a grassroots leader has eroded in recent years largely over his authoritarian style and zero-tolerance of criticism.
In February, the main opposition CHP party sought amendments to Article 299 of the penal code which criminalises any insults to the president, saying it did "not bode well with democracy and rule of law."
Activists have called for an end to rights abuses under the contentious article which they say was rarely used before Erdogan moved to the presidency.
"This article is used as a weapon to silence the opposition in violation of free speech, and it must be scrapped immediately," Arcan said.
Erdogan, who was himself imprisoned for four months in the late 1990s for reciting an Islamist poem that was deemed an incitement to religious hatred, sued journalists and cartoonists for slandering him when he was prime minister.
CHP's Aykan Erdemir said authoritarian political culture represented a "serious impediment to freedoms" in Turkey.
"It is Turkey's shame that police guard thoughts and opinions while ignoring labour crimes or women's murders," he told AFP.
The dozens of lawsuits have handed Turkish satirical weekly magazine Penguen with ammunition.
In its latest issue this week, it published a cartoon in which a policeman questions a meowing cat whether it is insulting the president.
The cat answers: "No man, I am a cat. It's beyond my understanding."
A former Miss Turkey beauty queen also faces jail because of an Instagram feed that prosecutors deem to be insulting to Erdogan.
"I did not steal anything, I did not kill anyone," Merve Buyuksarac told Turkish media.
"Which leader has brought his own citizens to trial on such a scale?"
Journalist Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, faces multiple years in prison for allegedly defaming the president because he interviewed one of the prosecutors who led a 2013 corruption investigation implicating Erdogan and his inner circle.
"Standing trial has become the nature of the profession," he said.
A US State Department official has voiced concerns about the wave of lawsuits.
"The idea that anyone whether they are editor-in-chief of a newspaper or a 16-year-old student or a taxi driver should fear prosecution and imprisonment for expressing their opinion in a public meeting or on a social media is problematic," said Thomas Melia, the deputy US assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour.
"That's one of the things that we are concerned about in Turkey's human rights environment today. And we are not alone," he said during a visit to Ankara.