ISTANBUL: Former Turkey football star Hakan Sukur went on trial in his absence Thursday on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on social media.
Sukur is one of several thousand people including journalists, politicians and the occasional celebrity, to face similar legal proceedings.
Opponents say Erdogan has become an increasingly polarising figure in Turkey since becoming president in 2014, showing zero tolerance for any criticism on social media or on the streets.
But the president’s supporters insist fair criticism is allowed and a line is only drawn when it boils over into insults.
The lawyer of Sukur, one of the stars of Turkey’s third place performance in the 2002 World Cup, told the court in Istanbul that his client had moved to the United States.
Ali Onur Guncel said his client could give testimony from the United States if evidence provided by the defence was found to be insufficient.
According to Turkish media, Sukur had accused Erdogan of theft in a tweet in February 2015, without naming him directly.
Prosecutors have asked in the indictment for Sukur to serve up to four years in jail.
Sukur, a striker whose football career stretched from 1987-2007, was by far the most prolific goalscorer in the history of the Turkish national side, finding the net 51 times in 112 appearances.
His goal after just 11 seconds of play against South Korea in 2002 remains the fastest goal in World Cup history.
After football, Sukur went into politics and was in 2011 elected an MP with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But he resigned in 2013 after a vast corruption probe that targeted Erdogan and his inner circle, siding with the movement of his arch-foe, the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Sukur had voiced objections to the government move to shut down schools run by Gulen’s movement Hizmet.
His lawyer’s comments confirm that Sukur has left his home country for the United States have ended uncertainty over his whereabouts.
Sukur had previously insisted his presence there was merely temporary to learn English and open a football academy.
One of Istanbul’s most prominent universities, Bilgi University, meanwhile said it had laid off a professor teaching in its communications faculty after she made remarks insulting Erdogan in a lecture.
The university said in a statement its relations with Professor Zeynep Sayin Balikcioglu had been cut and it no longer had any relationship with the academic.
Reports said that the comments — where the academic is said to have mocked Erdogan for being “the best in everything, in rudeness and vulgarity” — had been secretly recorded by a student at her lecture.