SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: June 13, 2019

Attack Types: Prosecution

Institution(s):Boğaziçi University | Istanbul Bilgi University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On June 13, 2019, the İstanbul 27th Heavy Penal Court convicted and sentenced a Boğaziçi University PhD candidate and an İstanbul Bilgi University research assistant to 15 months imprisonment and a Boğaziçi University scholar to two years and six months imprisonment on charges of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” The charges are in apparent retaliation for the scholars’ 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 court sentenced to 15 months imprisonment Boğaziçi University PhD candidate Şenay Çınar and İstanbul Bilgi University research assistant Belin Benezra. 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.

Boğaziçi University professor Noemi Levy Aksu was convicted and sentenced to two years and six months imprisonment. Aksu’s sentencing was not deferred and the case will be taken up at a court of appeal.

In February 2017, Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK) cancelled Aksu’s work permit in apparent retaliation for her endorsement of the Peace Petition (see report).

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.