Tayyip Erdogan.jpg
Photograph: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party on Friday welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to authorize a formal criminal investigation into a comedian who insulted Erdogan, while she came under fire at home for the move.

"In a state of law, it is not for the government, but for prosecutors and the courts to determine the balance between personal and other rights and freedom of speech and artistic expression," Merkel said in response to a Turkish request for prosecution.

"This decision is without a doubt the correct decision," AKP spokesman Omer Celik said Friday evening, according to state-run news agency Anadolu. "An insult to our president is disrespect to our nation and our state."

Merkel's decision means that talk show host Jan Boehmermann will be subjected to formal criminal proceedings for reciting a crude poem on German television in which he accused Erdogan of watching child pornography and performing sex acts with animals.

In contrast to a defamation complaint filed independently by Erdogan, the criminal probe - which is based on the potential violation of a law against insulting foreign heads of state - required authorization by the German government.

Merkel's Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners said they had been overruled by the chancellor's Christian Democrats (CDU) in relation to the case. 

"Freedom of speech, the press and artistic expression are values legally protected by our constitution," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said as he announced his opposition to the move alongside Justice Minister Heiko Maas. Both are members of the SPD.

Though many Germans find the comedian's poem tasteless and Merkel herself has called it "purposefully offensive," the case has unleashed a fierce debate about the limits of free speech in Germany.

"I think the decision is wrong. Prosecution of satire because of a 'lese-majeste law' doesn't fit with modern democracy," Thomas Oppermann, head of the Social Democrats' parliamentary group, said on Twitter.

The case has also raised questions about the European Union's deal to return migrants from Greece to Turkey, which critics say has made European leaders beholden to Erdogan in their desperate bid to end the refugee crisis.

"Unbearable kowtow: Merkel knuckles under the Turkish despot Erdogan and sacrifices freedom of the press in Germany," said Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of left-wing opposition party Die Linke.

ZDF, the public broadcaster that decided to show Boehmermann's recital of the poem, criticized Merkel's thumbs-up for criminal proceedings as "a political decision." The broadcaster has withdrawn the video from its archives, but maintains it did not break the law.

Several members of Merkel's CDU backed the decision, with Peter Tauber, general secretary of the party, saying: "The German government takes the rule of law seriously, even if it sometimes hurts."

Merkel announced that her government would put forward a proposal to scrap the law against insulting head of state, referring to it as "expendable." It was unclear how long this process would take and what implications it would have for the case against Boehmermann.

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