German Chancellor Angela Merkel has often been accused of deliberately pursuing vague policies to avoid being criticized. Her opponents believe that's what happened Friday when she allowed the prosecution of a German comedian for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a poem. Human rights activists, advocates of press freedom and even ministers in her own coalition government were outraged.
Merkel herself acknowledged that the law on which the charges were based should not exist and would be repealed by 2018. But her critics expected her to go one step further by not allowing the charges to proceed. Such a decision would have sent a strong pro-democracy message to Erdogan -- but it could also have had an unpredictable diplomatic and legal fallout. Merkel decided judicially right, but morally wrong, her critics said.
Erdogan had threatened to sue the comedian, Jan Böhmermann, but few expected those charges to actually be brought forward. Many seemed to have forgotten about the little-known and almost never-used law, which is now the focus of international attention. Most German commentators agree that the law, a pre-World War II remnant, should have been repealed long ago.
But, as in other European nations, it wasn't.
The incident sheds light on a much more widespread controversy: Despite being home to some of the world's most progressed democracies, Europe also is a place where blasphemy and insulting heads of states continue to be illegal under certain conditions. Most of the laws date back to times when Europe was ruled by emperors.
These laws fall into two categories: blasphemy laws and so-called cases of "lèse majesté" -- which means "injured majesty" and refers to insults against rulers or heads of states. The Böhmermann incidents fits into the latter category.
Somehow, that law survived the war and was later used to prohibit the leading German newsweekly Der Spiegel from publishing for two weeks in 1949 because it had allegedly insulted the king of the Netherlands. The incident could have served as a warning to German lawmakers, but instead the law was expanded four years later to also protect foreign heads of states.
Today, the U.S. president and other heads of states are still allowed to sue Germans in case they feel insulted. When an artist used the slogan "United States of Stasi" in 2014 after the Edward Snowden revelations (referring to the former eastern German secret service Stasi), the United States reportedly considered suing him under the same law Erdogan has now made use of, according to Der Spiegel. In the end, the United States did not sue.
According to news agency AFP and Dutch media, similar laws are in place in Sweden, Monaco and Spain. A British law gives prosecutors similar powers but has not been used since the 19th century.
There was an outcry in the United States and Europe when Thailand investigated the U.S. ambassador to the country last year after he allegedly insulted King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But the same could happen in a country like the Netherlands, where an activist faced trial last year after being accused of defaming Dutch royals. The Dutch law -- which was created in 1881 -- specifies that offenders can be punished with up to five years in jail or a substantial fine. The activist was sentenced to pay $560.
Lawsuits on behalf of royals and heads of states are not the only legal remnants of the 19th century, though: At least nine out of 45 nations in Europe still have blasphemy laws, according to the research service of the European Parliament. The U.N. Human Rights Committee considers them a violation of international law.
In addition to Germany, such laws are also still in place in Poland, Italy, Denmark, Greece, Malta, Finland, Austria and Ireland. Some European Union countries have openly defended the rules despite international criticism.
In late 2015, for instance, Poland's Constitutional Tribunal upheld a law that states that "whoever offends religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting an object of religious cult or a place for public holding of religious ceremonies, is subject to a fine, restriction of liberty or loss of liberty for up to two years."
Ireland passed its own blasphemy law as recently as 2009, making it the world's only modern democracy to have established such an act in the 21st century, according to the British Guardian newspaper.
Ireland's decision to establish the law is a dangerous precedent, critics say. Pakistan, for instance, recently used the Irish example to defend its own controversial blasphemy law, under which numerous people have been sentence to death.