A court in Istanbul on Wednesday acquitted a 92-year-old retired archaeologist who was tried for saying that Islamic-style head scarves date back more than 5,000 years several millennia before the birth of Islam and were worn by priestesses who initiated young men into sex.
Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, an expert on the ancient Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia, which arose around the third millennium B.C., was the latest person to go on trial in Turkey for expressing opinions, despite intense European Union pressure on the country to expand freedom of expression.
She is one of dozens of writers, journalists and academics who have been prosecuted, including this year's Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and novelist Elif Shafak.
Charges of insulting Turkishness against Pamuk were dropped over a technicality earlier this year, and Shafak was acquitted.
Unlike Pamuk and Shafak, who were tried under Turkey's notorious Article 301, which sets out punishment for insulting the Turkish Republic, its officials or "Turkishness," Cig was accused of insulting people based on their religion. She could have been imprisoned for 1Ѕ years had she been convicted.
In a trial that lasted less than an hour, Cig rejected the charges saying: "I am a woman of science. ... I never insulted anyone," private NTV television reported.
The court ruled in her favor on grounds that her actions did not constitute a crime. Her publisher, Ismet Ogutucu of the Kaynak publishing house, who also was tried, was also acquitted.
The trial took place a week before a crucial European Union report on Turkey's progress toward membership, which is expected to chide Turkey for slipping in its reform program and not acting to change laws that have been used to curb freedoms in violation of EU human rights standards.
The trial against Cig was initiated by an Islamic-oriented lawyer who was offended by claims made in her recently published political book, "My Reactions as a Citizen," in which she says that the earliest examples of head scarves date back to Sumerian times, when veils were word by priestesses who helped young men learn about sex.
Pro-secular groups came to the trial in a show of support for the archaeologist, who retired in 1972 and has written 13 books. They cheered and applauded her as she left the courthouse.
An avowed secularist, Cig gained public attention when she wrote to Emine Erdogan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's wife, urging her to take off her head scarf and set an example to women in this predominantly Muslim and secular country, where more and more women are veiling themselves in a show of religious piety.
Secularists view the head scarf as a symbol of political Islam and of female oppression.
Turkey has strict secular laws and regulations. Head scarves are banned in schools and in public offices, reports AP.
Erdogan, whose party has roots in Turkey's Islamic movement, has made no secret of his desire to relax the laws on head scarves. Cautious of sensitivities of pro-secular circles, including the powerful military, however, he has said that he would bide his time on the issue.