Turkish government’s persecution targeting dissident academics goes on with sham trials

Turkish academics ostracized for signing a peace petition convene a meeting. Photo: The Media Line

Turkish government’s systematic persecution campaign targeting dissident academicians has went on through sham trials on the courts instructed and controlled by government across Turkey.

Second hearings of trial of seven academics from İstanbul and Galatasaray universities were held at the İstanbul’s 32nd High Criminal Court on Friday. Şahika Yüksel, Aslı Aydemir, Ayten Alkan, Ayşe Rezan Tuncay, Sezen Çilengir from İstanbul University, Zübeyde Gaye Çankaya Eksen and Nazlı Ökten Gülsoy from Galatasary University in the hearings.

According to the indictment prepared by Prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt, the academics are being charged with “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, based on the Article 7/2 of the Turkish Anti-Terror Act and Article 53 of the Turkish Penal Code.

İbrahim Kaboğlu, a renowned Turkish professor of constitutional law, who has also been tried over the same charges, said that the criminal investigation recently launched against him and other academicians for a petition he signed two years ago was politically motivated.

Kaboğlu said the prosecutor asked him to testify regarding the right to petition after he was dismissed from the university by a decree. A court promptly issued a foreign travel ban on him, banning Kaboğlu from teaching at France’s prestigious Sorbonne University, which offered him a position after his dismissal.

Kaboğlu was among more than 2,000 academics who, in January 2015, demanded the Turkish government to stop military operations in the southeast of the country, which they said cause civilian casualties. Many of the academics, including also foreign names like American linguist Noam Chomsky and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who signed the petition, which was circulated by the “Academics for Peace”, were later dismissed by government decrees, most of them have also been barred from public service and had their passports cancelled.

A rule of emergency declared after a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016 allowed the government to issue decree laws without judicial or parliamentary review. Those who were dismissed by decree had no right to appeal.

According to an article, written by Judith Butler and Başak Ertür for Critical Legal Thinking, in the petition, entitled “We will not be a party to this crime,” objected to the continuation of violence against the Kurdish people, called for an end to the round-the-clock curfews that deprived the population of necessary provisions, and asked that the Turkish government resume talks with the PKK that the government itself had previously inaugurated. The petition referenced violations of international law and basic democratic principles, and accused the government of “deliberate and planned massacre and deportation.”

“The petition’s call to cease violence and comply with international law is taken by the state to be “propaganda” for the PKK. The indictment offers no careful reading of the actual petition. Most strange, then, that the indictment begins with the petition, citing it verbatim, and then concludes, without any argument, that it is a declaration that supports the PKK,” said the article and added that “This is a wilful distortion and reversal of the clear meaning of the petition. In fact, the petition calls for a peaceful settlement, therefore it clearly does not affirm the violent aims and actions of any Kurdish group. And yet that word ‘peace’ becomes code for ‘terrorism’.”

According to the article, “the steps by which the indictment distorts the petition seem to be these: (1) in calling for the cessation of violence against the Kurdish people, the signatories are taking sides with the Kurds; (2) the Kurds are regarded as terrorists, so taking sides with them is to ally with terrorism; (3) the call for a peaceful solution involves negotiating with terrorists; (4) a call for negotiation with terrorists constitutes propaganda for a terrorist organisation. Thus, (5) a petition to cease violence and enter into negotiation to achieve peace and to comply with national and international laws protecting human rights is nothing more than propaganda for Kurdish violence.”

The article has also underlined that “The indictment thus reverses the petition’s accusation of state violence. It is the signatories who are considered to have broken the law by ‘organising defamation campaigns against the Republic of Turkey, its government, judiciary, army and security forces using press and media…’ It is the signatories who by carrying out their propaganda campaign ‘for the armed terrorist organisation PKK … legitimises or promotes its methods including coercion, violence and threats.'”

“Suddenly, those who call for peace rather than violence, those who oppose massacres as crimes against humanity, are themselves accused of advancing a violent agenda,” said the article and added that “The use of media to circulate the claims of the petition internationally becomes an item in the indictment itself. The indictment claims that there were no massacres and that no curfews led to perilous food shortages, even though those facts are corroborated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Thus the petition is cast by the indictment as ‘false news.’ In this mirror-play, the indictment renames state violence as necessary security for the ‘residents’ in Kurdish areas, dismissing the petition’s appeal to international law to protect the lives of those very ‘residents’ as defamatory propaganda.”

Thus, according to the article, the proponents of the petition are accused of ‘spread(ing) false, baseless and malicious news through disinformation and information pollution, target(ing) the Republic of Turkey, its government, its army and security forces.’ They accuse the peace petitioners of making ‘war’ through the media, but their war is now taking shape in a series of show trials, made for mass media consumption.

According to a report written by Nick Ashdown for The Media Line, Yaman Akdeniz, a professor at Bilgi University’s Human Rights Law Research Center, had told that “You may not like what the [peace petition] says or believe it could have been said otherwise,” he continued, “but there is no polite way of exposing the negative aspects of the government’s anti-terrorism policies and practices and harshly criticizing the dismal situation in southeast Turkey.”

“We are increasingly concerned by the growing number of academics in Turkey who have had their careers crushed, been barred from leaving the country, and are facing prison sentences—all for speaking out for peace,” Daniel Munier, acting director for advocacy at Scholars at Risk, wrote in an email to The Media Line. “Under President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, asking questions and sharing ideas—a scholar’s duties—have become criminal offenses, punishable under Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws.”

Esra Mungan is a psychology professor at Bosphorus University who was imprisoned for a month after signing the petition and reading it publicly. She told the Media Line that Turkey is now suffering from brain-drain and that the government’s policies prevent universities from fulfilling their proper function. “Universities have to be free. You can’t do science if there’s no freedom of thought, no freedom of expression, no freedom of research,” she said.

“The psychological situation, the moral effects, these are the worst parts,” Kasım Akbaş, who taught sociology and the philosophy of law before being dismissed, told The Media Line. “Losing your job, even if you have money in your pocket, [makes] you feel useless. Also your family, your friends, you feel like they have pity for you.… When I introduce myself, I say ‘My name is Kasım,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”

“Some of our friends had to change their children’s schools,” revealed dismissed law professor Kıvılcım Turanlı.

Media Line has also reminded that last February, research assistant Mehmet Fatih Traş committed suicide after being discharged from Çukurova University for signing the petition. “It was really depressing for all of us because we couldn’t do anything,” said Zeynep Emeksiz, herself a dismissed professor of literature. “We weren’t there. He was so alone.”

After Traş’s suicide, the Eskişehir signatories started teaching classes in his name at a bookstore café, with topics ranging from gender to poetry to art. “The point is to get the people of Eskişehir to understand that we’re here [and] we’re not terrorists,” Emeksiz stressed. Like most of the fired academics, Emeksiz’s passport was cancelled, which was particularly devastating given he had won a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation scholarship in Germany. “I cannot leave the country, it as if I am a criminal,” she said.

The academics say that many people they meet cannot believe they were fired simply for signing a peace petition, and think they must have done something illegal. “The first thing they say is, ‘but you seem like a good person,’” Hatice Yeşildal, a dismissed sociology professor, told The Media Line.

“People in my neighborhood ask if I was dismissed because of FETÖ or the PKK. ‘Which kind of terrorist are you?’” added Meral Gürbüz, a dismissed law professor who now owns a café. “FETÖ” is a derogatory term coined by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to refer to the Gülen movement

Erdoğan has also labelled the academics “enemies of the state” and terrorists, while urging the judiciary to take action. The pro-government media also targeted them and published their names. Pro-government gang leader Sedat Peker threatened the academics, saying “We will shower in your blood.” In Eskişehir, a mannequin was hanged over a highway next to a banner reading “Death penalty for the PKK academics.” “When we search our names in Google, the first thing we find is ‘PKK terrorist,’” Yeşildal said.

Despite the hardships, none of the academics The Media Line spoke to expressed regrets about signing the petition. “The government wants us to be unseen. I always [tell people] I’ve been fired with an [executive decree] and I’m proud of it. At this time, to not be fired is a thing to be ashamed of,” asserted molecular biologist Duygu Abbasoğlu.

According to the report by the Media Line, the academics now support themselves with a small amount of money disbursed by the Eğitim Sen teachers’ union, while some do private tutoring or translation work. All of them said the psychological effects of being purged, along with the resulting social stigma, are worse than the financial hardships.

Turkish academia has been devastated not only by the dismissals and charges against the peace petition signatories, but also by the sacking of nearly 5,000 academics in a series of executive decrees since the failed coup in July 2016. This is part and parcel of a massive, ongoing purge of government opponents, which includes around 60,000 arrested and 150,000 fired or blacklisted. A presidential decree on October 29, 2016 also ruled that state university rectors must now appointed directly by the president, instead of decided through faculty elections.

Since a ceasefire was broken in July 2015, over 3,300 people have been killed in fighting between the state and the PKK, including some 400 civilians. Over half a million people in the mostly Kurdish southeast have been forced to flee from their flattened homes. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented numerous rights violations by both sides and accused Ankara of collective punishment against the Kurdish population.

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