Turkish court sentences 2 prominent academics over peace petition

A Turkish court sentenced two prominent Turkish academics on Wednesday to one year, three months in prison on terrorism charges for signing a 2016 peace petition calling for an end to state violence against Turkey’s Kurds.

According to a report by Bianet, three Turkish academics who have been charged with “disseminating propaganda for a terrorist organization” for having signed the declaration appeared before the İstanbul 32nd and 14th High Criminal Courts on Wednesday.

The petition, titled “We will not be a party to this crime!” was published in January 2016 in reaction to months of fighting between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), after a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire broke down in 2015. The government put large parts of the Southeast under curfew, and some largely Kurdish areas were bombarded with heavy weapons.

Calling themselves “Academics for Peace,” the 1,128 signatories included Turkish scholars and prominent foreign academics such as American linguist Noam Chomsky. They said Turkish government was condemning residents of towns in the southeast to hunger through the use of curfews and also called for a solution to the conflict, including talks with the Kurdish political movement.

The government said its measures were necessary to root out Kurdish militants who had dug trenches and laid explosives. The United Nations has estimated the security operations left 2,000 people dead and up to half a million displaced.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Veli Polat from İstanbul University and Prof. Dr. Zübeyde Füsun Üstel from Galatasaray University appeared for their third hearing at the İstanbul 32nd High Criminal Court on Wednesday, during which they were both sentenced to one year, three months in prison.

The hearing of Assistant Professor Yasemin Gülsüm Acar from Özyeğin University has been postponed to April 12 upon the request of her attorney.

Polat’s sentence has been suspended by the court, but Üstel’s was not since she failed to express remorse, although she can appeal the verdict in an appeals court.

Prof. Dr. Nüket Esen from Boğaziçi University also had her first hearing on Wednesday at the İstanbul 14th High Criminal Court. Presenting her statement of defence, Esen denied the allegations. The trial has been adjourned until June 28.

The peace declaration frustrated Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, leading to retribution against the academics. Some of the insults Erdoğan used included “so-called intellectuals,” “a flock called intellectuals,” “traitors” and “rough copies of intellectuals.”

Hundreds of academics who signed the declaration were detained when police raided their homes and offices across Turkey after the declaration was announced on Jan. 11, 2016, while scores were removed from their jobs.

Since a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016, a total of 5,717 academics at 117 universities have been dismissed from their jobs due to government decrees issued under the ongoing state of emergency. However, according to a BBC Turkish report in July, 23,427 academics have been negatively affected by the state of emergency that was declared following the failed coup attempt in 2016.

The report said at least 23,427 academics either lost their jobs at universities when their contracts were terminated, or were dismissed from their positions, or were left unemployed when the universities where they worked were closed down by the government after Sept. 1, 2016.

Critics say the collective dismissal of academics and collective verdicts without specifying individual crimes violates the principle of “the individuality of crime and punishment in law.”

Emergency rule was declared for three months on July 21, 2016 and became effective with a government decree issued on July 23, 2016. With the first decree, No. 667, 15 private and foundation universities were closed down on the grounds that they were linked to the Gülen movement.

There is no information about the number of administrative staff members working at these universities who were affected, but 2,808 academics were left unemployed and 65,000 students had to seek new universities according to figures from the Higher Education Board (YÖK).

Another state decree in September targeted 15,000 research assistants for their alleged links to the Gülen movement. They were part of an Assistant Professor Training Program (ÖYP) that was launched in 2010 to meet the need for academics in Turkey.

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