On October 31, 2018, Istanbul’s 36th Heavy Penal Court sentenced cultural studies scholar Dr. Esra Arsan up to 7 years and 6 months imprisonment on a charge of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” in apparent retaliation for the scholar’s endorsement of a petition criticizing state and military actions in the mainly Kurdish south-eastern part of Turkey on January 10, 2016, while she was an academic at Istanbul Bilgi University.
The petition, organized by a group known as the “Academics for Peace,” was issued in January 2016 and was initially signed by 1,128 scholars from 89 Turkish universities, as well as more than 300 scholars from outside the country. The petition demanded a cessation of fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, accusing the government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians, and called on the government to allow independent observers into the region, to 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 for endorsing the petition.
Dr. Arsan resigned from Istanbul Bilgi University on January 31, 2017, after having been a faculty member for 18 years. Since then she has been writing articles at “Gazete Duvar.”
The Prosecutor’s Office has reportedly demanded that Arsan be charged under Article no. 7/2 of Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law, and given a sentence of up to seven years and six months in prison. Arsan reportedly did not request a suspension of the verdict.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the 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.