Turkey on Tuesday began the hugely controversial trial of hundreds of academics charged with terror offences for signing a petition calling for peace in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. 1,128 Turkish and also foreign academics signed the petition which emerged in January 2016 calling for an end to the military’s crackdown on outlawed Kurdish militants in the southeast that had begun six months earlier.
According to the indictment prepared by an İstanbul prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt, the academics are being charged with “making propaganda on the behalf of a terror organisation” based on the Article 7/2 of the Turkish Anti-Terror Act and Article 53 of the Turkish Penal Code. Each academic face up to 7,5 years in prison. The investigation is carried out by İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.
The petition, initially signed by 1,128 academics calling themselves Academics for Peace and then by more than 1,000 more, declared “We will not be party to this crime.” The petition condemned the Turkish government’s security operations against the PKK youth movement in cities of southeast Turkey because of the disastrous impact of the operations on the Kurdish civilian population. The petition, made public at an İstanbul news conference on January 11, 2016, also called for a resumption of peace talks with the PKK.
The peace declaration frustrated Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and he strongly criticized the academics in at least five speeches – terming them vile, equal to terrorists, base, and dark – and demanding sanctions against them. Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has launched a campaign for retribution against the academics. Some of the insults Erdoğan used against them 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 hundreds of them were removed from their jobs.
The trials of academics start on December 5, 2017, and will continue over the following months. At least 146 academics from public and private universities in İstanbul will face individual and separate trial hearings for “spreading terrorist propaganda” on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). New cases are expected to be opened against signatories of the petition.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) has reported on Tuesday that the academics say the petition was an apolitical call for peace but prosecutors charged 146 of the signatories with making propaganda for the PKK. The first 10 — from İstanbul University and Galatasaray University — went on trial in İstanbul on Tuesday with the hearing attended by EU diplomats including the French ambassador.
Each suspect had a 10-minute hearing at the start of a marathon process expected to continue until at least April. The prosecution has chosen not to stage a mass trial involving all the suspects in the same case.
In the first hearings, the defence argued that the petition was “within boundaries of freedom of expression” and demanded their immediate acquittal, an AFP journalist in the court said.
Their next hearings will take place on April 12, 2018. Ten more academics will appear in court on Thursday with further sessions scheduled throughout December and January.
Outside the court, students gathered in support of their lecturers, brandishing banners with slogans, including: “Don’t touch my professor!”
If convicted, the suspects face up to seven-and-a-half years in jail. None of those who went on trial on Tuesday is currently being held behind bars.
Professor İbrahim Kaboğlu, whose hearing is set for December 21, 2017, called the trial an “absurdity.” “It’s a paradoxical dilemma. There’s no logic. It cannot be justified legally,” said Kaboğlu, who lost his job after signing the petition. “The trial is rooted in freedom of expression, which is a crucial problem for Turkey,” he told AFP.
Renowned US philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky, who also signed the petition, issued a statement in solidarity with the Turkish scholars, criticising the penal case as a “shocking miscarriage of justice.”
“The case is an assault against fundamental rights of free expression that should be zealously safeguarded,” the leftwing academic said in a message.
France said it was monitoring the case with “great attention”, calling on Turkey to respect its commitments on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“Respect for the right to a fair trial and the promotion of an active and pluralistic civil society are essential components of any democracy,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
It emphasised France’s support for Galatasaray University — set up in 1992 under a Turkish-French agreement — hailing it as an “essential pillar of French-Turkish cooperation.”
Turkey’s latest campaign against the PKK has been backed by heavy ground offensives the government says are necessary to crush a terror group but activists say the operation has been marked by disregard for civilian lives. The petition denounced a “deliberate and planned massacre” in the southeast, which it said was “in serious violation of international law.”
Erdoğan sharply criticised the signatories, saying they were “party to” the bloodshed being carried out by the PKK, and invited his foreign critics, including Chomsky, to come see the situation for themselves.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday said the trials violated the right to freedom of speech and were a “misuse of terrorism laws”.
“The decision to prosecute scores of academics for signing a January 2016 petition criticizing the Turkish government’s actions in southeastern Turkey seriously violates the right to free speech and academic freedom, Human Rights Watch said today. The charges are also a misuse of terrorism laws,” said the statement by HRW on Tuesday.“Nearly two years after signing a petition that calls for peace, academics are now standing trial for spreading terrorist propaganda.” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “There is nothing in the petition to justify such an absurd charge and putting the academics on trial shows the Turkish government’s eagerness to set the criminal justice system against those who disagree with it.”
“The identical accusations against each academic are outlined in a 17-page indictment, but each proceeding is to be separate and the prosecutor has not opted to indict all the academics in one process. The indictment claims that in signing the petition the academics were responding to a December 2015 call reported in Kurdish media by a senior commander from the PKK calling on ‘democrats and intellectuals’ to support self-governance. There is no evidence of a link between the petition and an order from the armed group. The hearings for the academics are scheduled in some cases at 10 or 15-minute intervals in at least seven heavy penal courts,” said the statement.
Four of the signatories were detained and prosecuted in 2016 after they held a second news conference. An İstanbul court sent the four to pretrial detention on March 15, 2016, pending the completion of a criminal investigation. They were charged with spreading terrorist propaganda, which carries a sentence of between one and five years. The İstanbul court released them at their first hearing on April 22, 2016, and said it would seek permission from the justice minister to try the four for ‘insulting state institutions’ (Turkish Penal Code article 301) and postponed the case.
In mid-August 2017, the justice minister permitted the prosecution to continue under article 301, for which the penalty is six months to two years in prison. The fact that the four now face charges not of ‘spreading terrorist propaganda’ but of ‘insulting state institutions’ calls into the question the basis of the trials on terrorism charges that begin on December 5.
According to HRW statement, to date 380 academics who signed the declaration have been dismissed from their universities and barred from public service by state of emergency decrees, and another 83 have been dismissed without being barred. “Academic freedom in Turkey is hanging by a thread,” Williamson said. “Academics should be free to teach and research without facing trumped up charges or dismissal for their peaceful expression.”
The trials opened to the backdrop of growing concern over freedom of expression in Turkey following a massive crackdown in the wake of the failed coup of July 2016 against Erdoğan’s rule. Since then, thousands of employees in the education sector have been dismissed under laws linked to the state of emergency, among them 463 of the academics who signed the petition, HRW said.