On April 30, 2019, Turkish courts convicted and issued prison sentences to research assistants Ömer Çelebi and Süreyya Topaloğlu on terrorism-related charges. The charges are in apparent retaliation for their endorsement of a petition criticizing state and military actions in predominantly Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey.
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.
Istanbul’s 23rd Heavy Penal Court convicted and sentenced Çelebi, of Yıldız Technical University, to fifteen months imprisonment on a charge of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” However the court deferred the announcement of the verdict, a procedural mechanism through which individuals convicted of crimes can avoid prison time so long as they are not subsequently convicted of separate offenses.
At the 25th Heavy Penal Court in Istanbul, judges convicted and sentenced Topaloğlu, of İstanbul Bilgi University, to two years and six months’ imprisonment on a charge of “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization as a non-member.” Topaloğlu’s sentencing was not deferred and the case will be taken up at a court of appeal.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution of research assistants 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.