On March 20, 2019, the İstanbul 27th Heavy Penal Court convicted and sentenced four academics to prison on charges of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” The charges are in connection to 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.
Tuna Kuyucu, of Boğaziçi University, and İlker Birbil, from Sabancı University, were sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment; Taylan Şahan Tarhan, of Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, was sentenced to twenty months imprisonment; and Nevin Zeynep Yelçe, of Sabancı University, was sentenced to two years and six months imprisonment.
The court has suspended the announcement of the verdicts in the cases of Kuyucu, Birbil, and Tarhan, a procedural mechanism in Turkey through which individuals convicted of crimes can avoid prison time so long as they are not subsequently convicted of separate offenses.
In the case ofYelçe, the court declined to to suspend the the verdict. Yelçe’s case will be transferred to an appeals court.
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.