Since January 2016 the Academics for Peace case has become one of the symbols of the crackdown on democracy in Turkey.
No critical voices are spared in the repression: MPs, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, students and many others are detained and/or have been prosecuted for their opinions and activities.
Each week brings new politically-motivated trials, where anonymous citizens and prominent figures of Turkey’s political and cultural life are faced with the most serious of criminal charges. Fundamental rights are put in the dock and go on trial and systematically abused. The week beginning 4 December was no exception, with trials targeting Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) politicians, dozens of journalists and the first hearings of scholars connected to Academics for Peace.
Academics for Peace are university professors and graduate students who signed a peace petition entitled We Will Not Be a Party To This Crime in January 2016. This statement denounced the government’s violations of human rights in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, demanded that access to these areas be granted to independent national and international observers and called for negotiations to secure a fair and lasting peace. The petition was initially signed by 1,128 academics and grew to 2,020 in the weeks after it was released. Since then, the signatories have suffered from multiple forms of repression, including criminal and administrative investigations, detention, dismissals and revocation of their passports. As of December 2017, more than 400 academics have been dismissed and hundreds of PhD students have lost their scholarships.
The repression is now reaching a new stage as signatories have been brought before the Istanbul High Criminal Court. Hundreds have been charged with spreading “terrorist propaganda” under Article 7(2) of Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law, which could mean up to seven-and-a-half years in prison. While the indictment has been levelled at the academics as a group, the hearings are individual and distributed over several months. The first hearings were held simultaneously in three different rooms of the Çağlayan courthouse on 5 and 7 December. They offered an insight not just into the deep flaws of the justice system, but also illustrated the determination of the academics to face this new ordeal with firmness and solidarity.
The week started with a day of events organised by the Academics for Peace co-ordination and the education trade union Eğitim-Sen in Istanbul. Meanwhile, several demonstrations and statements of support were released from Europe and the US. On the first day of the hearings, a press statement was organised in front of the courtroom. Besides the defendants, dozens of academics and several international observers were present. While only a few could attend the hearings due to the limited capacity of the rooms, numerous academics and students spent their days at the courthouse to support their colleagues.
The succession of hearings gave an insight into the diversity of the signatories of the petition. PhD students, young lecturers and well-known professors were brought to the court, while a few defendants now settled abroad could not attend. Although all the defendants in that week’s hearing came from two universities in Istanbul, many did not even know each other and greeted their alleged partners in crime at the doors of the courtroom, united by the smallest possible common denominator and the only ground for their criminal charge: their signature on the peace petition.
Lawyers had no difficulties in demonstrating the inconsistencies and blatant errors in the indictment. Incomplete or erroneous references to European cases related to freedom of expression, press articles and governmental statements were provided in lieu of evidence, mistranslated terms in English or Kurdish were among the mistakes most often quoted by the defendants’ lawyers. Beyond that, they insisted that the indictment was irrelevant and criticised the absence of any concrete evidence to support the charge of terror propaganda. Lawyers also reminded the court of the national and international legal texts, conventions and jurisprudence protecting freedom of expression. They underlined that critical thinking was essential to academic work and that by criticising the state, the defendants had behaved as one would expect of intellectuals. While a majority of academics indicated that they would not offer a statement at this first hearing, some presented a defence that followed the arguments of their lawyers, sometimes providing additional information on their personal and/or academic motivations for signing the petition and sharing how absurd they thought the case was. All the cases were adjourned to a later date, stretching from late December until May.
While the case the Academics for Peace sheds light on the persecution of critical scholars in Turkey, not only academic freedom is on trial there. Indeed, the first hearings gave an opportunity to the academics and their lawyers to remind the court of the context in which the peace petition was released: strong statements recalled how violence escalated in the Kurdish region of Turkey after the June 2015 elections and illustrated the impact of state repressions on civilians in the region — endless curfews, unlawful killing of children, corpses abandoned in the streets or kept in refrigerators, destruction of whole neighbourhoods in Cizre or Diyarbakir. Quoting the reports issued by national and international organisations, including the UN, these defences brought to the forefront the realities behind the words of the petition. Beyond this, some lawyers and defendants used the concepts of state violence, discrimination and racism to contextualise the last few years in the longer history of repression targeting the Kurdish region. As in many of the ongoing political trials in Turkey, the hearings turned into a denunciation of the multiple levels of state repression. The prosecutor and judges showed little reaction to these harsh critiques. Obviously, there was little to object to: like many journalists on trial, the academics were charged for making public what was true and ignored by none.
Finally, these hearings revealed yet again that the justice system in Turkey is at a breaking point. As the prosecutor who authored the indictment remained invisible, it was obvious that the judges and prosecutors had little familiarity with the cases. Appearing increasingly weary of the repetitive character of the hearings, they made a compulsive and ostensible use of their phones while the lawyers and defendants were talking. While the lawyers emphasised that the unique indictment should have resulted in a unique, collective trial, this demand was rejected by the court and a large part of the hearings were devoted to copy-pasting the charges and defences for each of the defendants.
Joining the long list of criminal cases against citizens who dared to express their opposition to the government and its policies, the trial of the Academics for Peace is a new illustration of the political use and abuse of justice to silent all critical voices in Turkey.