On February 21, 2019, the 33rd Heavy Penal Court sentenced thirteen academics to one year, ten months, and five days imprisonment each, and another fourteen academics to two years and three months imprisonment each, all on charges of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” The charges are in apparent retaliation for their 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 for endorsing the petition.
The thirteen academics who received sentences of one year, ten months and five days were from Koç University (Seçkin Sertdemir Özdemir, F.A.A., Gözde Aytemur Nüfusçu, and a scholar referred to as Y.Y.), Kadir Has University (Elif Akçalı), Boğaziçi University (a scholar referred to as T.D., Yüksel Taşkın, and Meltem Ahıska), Nişantaşı University (Ayşe Nilüfer, Cihan Yapıştıran, İrfan Keşoğlu, Doğan Çetinkaya, and a scholar referred to as N.M.) The court has suspended the announcement of the verdict, a procedural mechanism in Turkey through which individuals convicted of crimes can avoid prison time so long as they aren’t subsequently convicted of separate offenses.
The fourteen academics who received sentences of two years and three months imprisonment were İlkay Yılmaz and Hülya Kirmanoğlu), Yıldız Technical University (Eda Aslı Şeran and İsmet Akça), Kemerburgaz University (Ahmet Bekmen, Özgür Müftüoğlu, Nihan Aksakallı, Haydar Durak, and Aysuda Kölemen), Arel University (İlkay Özkuralpli and Remzi Orkun Güner), Bahçeşehir University(Esra Kaliber and Zeynep Tül Süalp), and Kadir Has University (Öznur Yaşar Diner). The court found that they had showed “no remorse” for their actions and therefore ordered that they serve out their prison sentences.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution and imprisonment 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.