On April 4, 2018, a Turkish court convicted and sentenced Istanbul University Professor Veli Polat and Galatasaray University Professor Zübeyde Füsun Üstel to 15 months imprisonment on terrorism-related charges, in apparent retaliation for their endorsement of a petition calling on the Turkish government to end its crackdowns targeting Kurdish rebels in the 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 demands an end to fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, accuses the government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians, and calls 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 the signatories have reportedly faced criminal and professional retaliation. Prosecutions against against 148 scholar-signatories charged with “terrorist propaganda” began in December 2017.
At their third hearing, on April 4, 2018, Professors Polat and Üstel were both convicted and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment on a charge of “making terrorist propaganda.” The court suspended Professor Polat’s sentence, while Professor Üstel is seeking to appeal the verdict.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about prosecution of scholars 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.
UPDATE: On February 25, 2019, a the İstanbul Regional Court of Justice upheld the conviction and sentencing of Füsun Üstel. On May 8, 2019, Füsun Üstel submitted herself to Eskişehir Women’s Closed Prison where she will be held for 11 months. She will serve the remainder of her sentence on probation.
UPDATE: On July 22, 2019, Üstel was released from prison. Days later, on July 26, Turkey’s Constitutional Court found the convictions against her and nine other academics violated their right to freedom of expression. The court ordered re-trials and compensation for the 10 academics.