HSBC Turkey Chief Denied Insulting Erdogan, Probe Documents Show

(Bloomberg) -- The head of HSBC Holding Plc’s Turkish unit denied insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on social media during nationwide protests against the government in 2013, according to an official document showing his testimony to police officers in September.

HSBC Turkey Chief Executive Officer Selim Kervanci is being investigated by the prosecutor’s office over a video he retweeted during the so-called Gezi protests five years ago, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. He is one of the highest-profile executives targeted in the government’s crackdown on dissent, and news of the investigation first emerged in the Cumhuriyet newspaper on Monday.

HSBC Turkey Chief Denied Insulting Erdogan, Probe Documents Show

The clip that Kervanci shared was from the 2004 German movie “Downfall,” set during Adolf Hitler’s last days and depicting the collapse of Nazi Germany. Kervanci said he hadn’t watched the video before sharing it and that his sole purpose in retweeting it was to watch it later, according to a copy of the deposition he signed along with his lawyer and two police officers on Sept. 13.

The chief executive formally asked the authorities to drop the investigation. Under the law, the prosecutors conducting the probe will decide whether to press any charges but have no deadline to do so.

HSBC’s Turkey unit declined to comment. Kervanci didn’t respond to a phone call or a text message to his mobile phone seeking comment.

Failed Coup

Insulting Erdogan or other public officials is a crime in Turkey. The president has recently revived his attacks on those he blames for organizing the 2013 protests ahead of local elections in March. In rallies and speeches, he described the demonstrations as a precursor to the failed coup to remove him in 2016.

In November, Erdogan blamed billionaire philanthropist George Soros for backing the protesters. The following month, the same accusation was repeated in a document filed by a Turkish prosecutor to a court in Istanbul.

The freedom to publicly criticize Erdogan and his government was severely curtailed in Turkey after June 2013, when a small sit-in against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in central Istanbul morphed into weeks of nationwide protests against the government. But restrictions against free speech grew worse after the attempted putsch.

Vast Powers

What began as a round-up of alleged followers of an Islamic cleric whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the attempted putsch has expanded into a crackdown on journalists, academics and artists opposed to the concentration of vast executive powers in the presidency, a shift approved in a 2017 referendum.

The investigation against the HSBC banker adds to investor worries over policy makers’ direction, according to Jonathan Friedman, London-based Turkey analyst at Wallbrook, a global risk consultancy.

“This investigation reinforces investors’ views that Turkey carries a high political risk, and underlines the state of high political tensions heading into March local elections,” Friedman said by email.

“Politics trump economics in today’s Turkey, and investors view this incident as showing that operating under an international brand offers only limited protection from falling on the wrong side of President Erdogan’s government,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.