On April 12, 2018, a Turkish court convicted and sentenced Professors Stefo Benlisoy and Yasemin Gülsüm Acar to 15 months imprisonment on a charge of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” 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 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 the signatories have reportedly faced criminal and professional retaliation. Prosecutions against against 148 scholar-signatories charged with “terrorist propaganda” began in December 2017.
Professors Venlisoy and Acar, both signatories to the peace petition, attended their second hearings at an Istanbul court on April 12, 2018. Both were convicted on charges of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” and received suspended prison sentences.
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.