On June 5, 2018, a Turkish court convicted and sentenced Büşra Ersanlı, professor emeritus at Marmara University, to one year and three months’ imprisonment on a charge of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” based on her endorsement of a petition criticizing state and military actions in the mainly Kurdish southeastern part of the country.
The petition, organized by a group known as “Academics for Peace,” was issued in January 2016 and initially signed by 1,128 scholars from 89 Turkish universities, as well as more than 300 scholars from outside the country. The petition demanded an end to fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, accused the government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians, and called on the government to allow independent observers into the region, end curfews, and renew peace efforts.
Following the petition’s publication, state and higher education authorities in Turkey began launching criminal and administrative investigations against the signatories. Since that time, a growing number of signatories have reportedly faced criminal investigations and prosecutions, as well as professional retaliation. Beginning in December 2017, 148 scholar-signatories have been charged with “terrorist propaganda.”.
In a June 5 hearing at Turkey’s 32 Heavy Penal Court, Professor Ersanlı argued that her endorsement of the petition, was nothing more than the peaceful exercise of her right to free expression. The court found her guilty of making propaganda for a terrorist organization, and sentenced her to one year and three months in prison. She has seven days to appeal the ruling.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about prosecution and imprisonment of a scholar in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a party. Where they are a part of a widespread pattern, such incidents have a profoundly chilling effect on academic freedom, undermine democratic society generally, and may represent a grave threat to higher education on a national scale. State authorities have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, as well as due process and fair trial.