Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Picture: AFP/ADEM ALTAN
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Picture: AFP/ADEM ALTAN

Istanbul — A Turkish prosecutor is investigating the head of HSBC Holding’s Turkish unit for allegedly insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to Cumhuriyet newspaper, targeting one of the most high-profile executives in the state’s crackdown on dissent.

The probe relates to HSBC Turkey CEO Selim Kervanci’s retweet of a video during the biggest protests of Erdoğan’s rule five years ago, Cumhuriyet reported, without saying where it got the information. The video was from the 2004 German movie Downfall, set during Adolf Hitler’s last days and depicting the collapse of Nazi Germany, the opposition newspaper said.

Kervanci gave his deposition to police in Istanbul last September, according to Cumhuriyet. HSBC Turkey declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg. Insulting Erdoğan is a crime in Turkey.

Erdoğan has revived his attacks on those he blames for organising the 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, the president blamed figures such as 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 criticise Erdoğan and his government was already 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-long nationwide protests against the government.

The repression grew worse after a failed military coup in 2016. What began as a round-up of alleged followers of an Islamic cleric, who Ankara blames 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.

Eye-balling bankers

Bankers have also been the subject of Erdoğan’s ire. The president has frequently accused an “interest-rate lobby” of pushing for higher borrowing costs to cripple Turkey’s economic growth.

HSBC is the 15th-largest among Turkey’s 47 banks by assets, according to the latest data from the Banks Association of Turkey. It has 82 branches and employed 2,250 people as of September, according to the data.

HSBC Holdings, which put loss-making units on sale in 2015, dropped the plan to divest of the Turkish unit after selling its Brazilian operation to Banco Bradesco for $5.2bn. Since then, the Turkish unit has gone through a re-organisation, reduced its branches, and focused on large and multinational companies, as well as the public sector and financial institutions.

A total of 6,033 people were prosecuted in 2017 for insulting Erdoğan, almost a third of whom were convicted, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in October. The figures are up sharply from 132 and 40 in 2014, when Erdoğan was elected president. Most recently, two of the nation’s most prominent comedy actors were hauled before a court after their take-down of authoritarian rule that appeared to allude to a grisly end for Erdoğan.

Turkey is also the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists, with at least 68 in prison for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a recent report.

With Taylan Bilgic