TURKEY UNCENSORED
Academic freedom under assault in Turkey's courts
07 Dec 2017
BY BARIS ALTINTAS
Protesters mark the opening of trials against Turkish academics.
Protesters mark the opening of trials against Turkish academics.

A group of court reporters scurried along the halls of Istanbul’s massive Çağlayan Courthouse on the morning of 7 December, taking pictures of the tables showing the trial schedules of several high criminal courts to share them with other reporters make sure that none of the sessions of the day go unreported. There were too many trials, but too few reporters interested.

The journalists — all from the dwindling critical media of Turkey — were there to cover the trials of dozens of academics who will be tried by İstanbul’s 33rd, 34rth and 35th High Criminal Courts in the coming weeks and months. The academics are accused of having disseminated “propaganda on behalf of a terror organization,” when, in 2016 January,  they signed a petition calling on the Turkish government to put an end to security forces’ operations in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, where many alleged human rights violations  — including deaths of civilians — took place under curfews declared in the region.

So far 148 people have been formally indicted, but a total of 1,128 academics signed the document, called the “Peace Petition” by its supporters. Nearly 500 of the “academics for peace” were expelled from university jobs with cabinet decrees issued under Turkey’s state of emergency declared after the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Nobody knows the exact number of those who left the country, to flee not the investigations against them and legal troubles as much, but the ever stifling and increasingly darker academic climate.

Only four academics — who were imprisoned between March and April 2016 for reading out the petition publicly– have so far been tried. The trials into the rest of the academics began on 6 December, with 10 academics appearing before a judge. One of them, Osman Olcay Kural, an academic from the Galatasaray University, has no regrets. “I am very glad that we signed that petition. I am thinking that we should have done it before,” he said, adding: “I will take this one step further. I don’t think anybody on that list regrets having signed the petition. If there are any, it has to be out of fear. They were frightened badly.”

And he is right. Some academics — although only a few — announced taking their signatures back after universities started investigating them back in early 2016. “And that, I respect,” Kural says. “People have children to take care of and bills to pay. It is the circumstances that have put them in this situation I regret.”

As the first academic to go on trial, Kural might have also inadvertently set the tone for the rest of the academic trials. The court hearing his trial rejected a request from Kural’s lawyer to try his client under Turkish Penal Code Article 301 — “denigrating Turkishness, the Republic and State agencies and organs,” which was the main accusation in the trial of the four academics who were tried earlier. The trial was adjourned until 12 April next year.

What about the others?

If there were 1,128 people who signed the petition, and if most of them are possibly all of them were investigated, then why have only 148 cases have been opened so far?

“Because the prosecutors chose to try them one by one. The text they are using in the indictments is the same; a single case could have been launched,” says Veysel Ok, a lawyer, who currently represents dozens of journalists and several of the peace academics. He, understandably, expects that number to go up in the coming days.

Attorney Ok says the “terror propaganda” and “denigrating Turkish state organs” accusations are vastly different in nature because a 301 conviction is better as it is not a terror crime. How can it be possible for a prosecutor to consider one in place of the other? “There is absolutely no legal explanation for this,” he says. “There is no incitement to terrorism or violence in that petition. For terror propaganda, such incitement is a requirement. To the contrary, the academics’ text wishes for peace. There is absolutely no legal basis for that accusation.”

Productivity in difficult times

“They are trying to make up a crime out of the petition,” agrees Emre Tansu Keten, a peace academic who was expelled from his position as a research assistant at Marmara University with a cabinet decree in February 2017. “This petition doesn’t fit either terror propaganda or 301.”

Keten, like the rest of the signers of the petition, will soon be on trial. However, like Kunal, he is unfazed by the government’s reaction. “As a political individual, I can’t say I was really shocked or that I went through an emotional breakdown when I was expelled,” he laughs.

Out of his university job, he keeps busy, “I work at a publisher as an editor, I am continuing on with my academic studies. I do a lot for [Turkish education professionals’ union] Eğitim-Sen, there is much to be done there.”

For many “peace academics” — and others under pressure in Turkey, such as journalists or rights activists — the unusually difficult times the country is going through need not put life on hold. So much has happened over the past few years: alliances forged by the government that were never expected to be broken have shattered; ministers have been listed as defendants in foreign courts; hundreds of civil servants, judiciary members, soldiers, police officers have been expelled or jailed; scores of President Erdoğan loyalists have fallen from grace and heads of mayors from the government party have rolled (of course, figuratively speaking, at least for now) over the upsetting results of a referendum that the government actually won. Yet, none of this has stopped the core of opposition in Turkey and people like Keten — who is also busy these days working on the final chapters of his doctoral thesis —  have continued their prolific work.

When the tide turns, something good might even come out all of this.

“There has been a search for an alternative academia for more than a decade in Turkey,” Keten says. “We, the academics of solidarity, are teaching alternative classes in Ankara, İzmir and Eskişehir. There are other journals and serious publishing houses where we can write and be published.”

“To a certain extent, these policies of intimidation have worked,” he added. “Many [who signed the] peace petitions have left the country, but there is also a group which has, over the past two years, created a foundation for a struggle. There are those who have stayed, and who are working to change things. And that, gives, hope.”

Reporters photographed lists of upcoming hearings to ensure.
Reporters photographed lists of upcoming hearings to ensure.

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