NICOSIA: A court in northern Cyprus on Thursday (May 16) acquitted two journalists who had faced up to five years in prison on charges of insulting and defaming Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Sener Levent, the editor of Turkish-language daily Afrika, was on trial alongside the paper's reporter Ali Osman Tabak for "insulting a foreign leader" after the newspaper published a cartoon showing a Greek statue urinating on Erdogan's head.
The cartoon first appeared online at the time of Erdogan's 2017 visit to Greece, and Afrika later published it with the caption "seen through Greek eyes".
But judge Cenkay Inan told a packed courtroom in northern Nicosia that the image "did not constitute an insult".
He said that by publishing the cartoon, Afrika was reporting the feelings of some Greeks after meetings between Turkish and Greek leaders.
He also noted several rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, which has acquitted journalists over alleged "insults" to politicians, citing freedom of expression.
The north Nicosia court erupted in loud applause as the ruling was read out and supporters cheered as the two journalists were released, an AFP reporter at the hearing said.
"Erdogan lost and we won," Levent told AFP as he left the courtroom.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-backed coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.
Ankara still has more than 30,000 troops deployed in the territory and bankrolls a breakaway republic there that is unrecognised except by Turkey.
But the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has its own legal system.
Levent, a vocal opponent of Erdogan and his ruling AKP party, called the court verdict "an important milestone for real independence against Turkey."
"Turkey cannot do here what it does in Turkey," he said.
Rights groups say journalists today face growing pressure both in Turkey and in the TRNC.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) welcomed Thursday's ruling, saying the charges had "sent a very disturbing signal to northern Cypriot journalists as a whole".
But it pointed out that Levent also faces trial over an article he wrote criticising a Turkish military operation against a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.
Erdogan responded at the time by calling on Ankara's "brothers in north Cyprus to give the necessary response".
The following day, a crowd of ultranationalists attacked the offices of Afrika - a tiny daily with a 1,500 circulation in a statelet of around 300,000 people - as Turkish Cypriot police stood back and watched.