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On 26 July 2019, Turkey’s highest court brought new hope to Turkish academics when it ruled that ten educators who had signed the petition “We will not be a Party to This Crime!” (Bu Suça Ortak Olmayacağız) had been tried unfairly and in violation of their rights.
The petition, created by the Kurdish rights group Academics for Peace, called on the Turkish government to “prepare the conditions for negotiations and create a road map that would lead to a lasting peace which includes the demands of the Kurdish political movement”. It was signed by over two thousand academics, all of whom were then individually charged with “conducting propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. The news that the resulting trials might violate the signatories rights sparked a firestorm of controversy in Turkey, where academia is tightly controlled and public discussion of the trials has been constrained.
Noémi Lévy-Aksu is an historian of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey and an aspiring lawyer. She has French and Turkish citizenship and was working as an assistant professor at Boğaziçi University until 2017, when she was dismissed for signing the Academics for Peace petition, an experience about which she previously spoke to Index in 2018. Lévy-Aksu is currently a teaching fellow at the London School of Economics and she is involved in human rights advocacy and volunteer legal work. She still speaks out about her experience and she spoke with Index’s Sophia Paley about the latest developments in the challenges facing Turkish academics and their students.
Index: Thousands of academics have been dismissed for political reasons since the coup in 2016, most of them were not signatories of the Academics for Peace petition. Why do you think the Academics for Peace cases have gotten so much more international attention than these other cases?
Noémi Lévy-Aksu: The case of the Academics for Peace has become emblematic of the attacks on academic freedom and freedom of expression in today’s Turkey. The sole ground on which academics have been threatened, dismissed and prosecuted is their endorsement of a declaration demanding the end of state violence against civilians and the resumption of the peace process. In this respect, it is one of the multiple cases of criminalisation of critical thought and expression, which target journalists, political actors, human rights defenders as well. The degree of international attention is also due to the efforts of the Academics for Peace themselves, who have established solidarity networks in Turkey and abroad to support the signatories and raise awareness about their cases among academics, human rights defenders and policy-makers.
Index: What do you think will happen to the petition signatories who have already been sentenced, including those who legally forfeited their right to an appeal?
Lévy-Aksu: Turkey’s constitutional court has ruled that the conviction of the signatories of the Academics for Peace declaration was a violation of their rights and considered that the declaration was within the scope of academic freedom. The court also ordered that a copy of the decision be sent to the lower courts involved in the process. Accordingly, those still under prosecution should be acquitted, re-trials should be held for the ones who have received a final sentence and the regional courts of appeal should reverse the conviction for the cases that are pending on appeal.
Index: Do you think that the high court’s verdict represents a genuine turning point for academic freedom in Turkey, or is that a false hope? What is the verdict’s significance?
Lévy-Aksu: The decision of the constitutional court is an important landmark, following a few other positive decisions acknowledging the wide scope of freedom of expression in international law and Turkish legislation. In this respect, it brings hope not only to academics, but also to all those who are currently prosecuted for their opinions and statements in Turkey, as well as to the national and national human rights defenders. However, the decision was adopted with a one-vote majority and triggered harsh criticism in the pro-governmental media. Legally, the decisions of the constitutional court are binding on inferior courts, but in the last few years some inferior court judges have proved reluctant to apply those decisions, so the next few months will be crucial to evaluate the legal impact of this judgment.
Finally, one should not forget that the criminal prosecution of the Academics for Peace is just one aspect of the multiple attacks against academic freedom in today’s Turkey. Arbitrary dismissals and obstacles to critical research remain burning issues, which cannot be solved without a strong political will.
Index: According to pro-state media, 1,071 academics have signed a manifesto condemning the high court’s verdict. Why do you think they would do such a thing? Do they truly believe their fellow academics are promoting terrorism? What is their motivation?
Lévy-Aksu: The “1071” declaration was initiated by a few university rectors, who did not hesitate to stand against the highest court of the country to show their loyalty to the political power. The number “1071” was chosen as a reference the Malazgirt battle in 1071, but it soon appeared that the list was not accurate: some signatories appeared twice, while a few declared that their names had been included without their consent. One lecturer from Istanbul Aydın University even resigned to protest against her name being used without her consent. As for the more than a thousand academics who chose to endorse such a declaration, some are active supporters to the government, while others probably feared sanctions if they answered negatively to their rectors’ requests. In any case, this declaration gives an idea of the atmosphere in these universities, where administrations are completely beholden to political power and the academic staff have little choice but active or passive consent.
Index: How familiar is the Turkish public with the government’s tightening restrictions on academic freedom? What do you believe is their reaction?
Lévy-Aksu: Turkey’s public sphere is so divided that it is impossible to talk about the “Turkish public”. The case of the Academics for Peace petition has received attention both in pro-governmental and in independent media, from very different perspectives. In the pro-governmental discourse, purges in academia are presented as part of the fight against terror and its supporters, either Gulenists or pro-Kurdish. In that view, state security and the interests of the nation are involved, so academic freedom is not important. On the other hand, restrictions on academic freedom are increasingly criticised in the public sphere, as part of the broader violations of human rights and freedoms in Turkey, but also because of their negative impact on the quality of teaching and research in the Turkish academia.
Index: Speaking of the quality of Turkish higher education, how do solidarity academies differ from other private educational institutions, and what is their role in providing space for open inquiry and critical thought?
Lévy-Aksu: Solidarity academies are alternative structures created by academics who believe that new spaces are needed to resist attacks against academic freedom and critical thought. Many of them, though not all, are signatories to the Academics for Peace petition who were dismissed from their academic positions. Solidarity academies started as local, informal initiatives in various cities of Turkey, such as Eskişehir, Kocaeli, Dersim, Mersin, Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul. Several have now become more organised and obtained a legal status as associations. Contrary to private educational institutions, they are non-profit organisations and they aim to develop innovative approaches to research and teaching, with special emphasis on freedom and critical thinking. While they do not seek to reproduce the conventional academic system, these academies have connections with international research networks and scholars and they make an important contribution to knowledge production in Turkey. As an increasing number of countries witness attacks on academic freedom, such initiatives are vital to develop transnational networks of solidarity and support academics and students affected by these developments.
Index: The Turkish government is increasingly relying on anti-terrorism legislation to attack its political enemies. Why was this specific justification chosen, and how does it change the legal process?
Lévy-Aksu: Using anti-terror legislation to attack political enemies is a strategy that has been used by the Turkish successive governments for decades. As in other countries, anti-terrorism legislation enables the state to limit the rights of the suspects, as illustrated by the anti-terror law adopted after the state of emergency was lifted in July 2018. Inter alia, it allows longer custody periods and defenders and lawyers can be prevented from accessing the case file. Beyond these legal aspects, labelling critical voices as terrorist is a political strategy that aims to shape public opinion and increase support of the government. It presents the prosecution and imprisonment of opponents as legitimate and necessary for the interests of the nation.
Index: The Turkish Constitution includes provisions forbidding “[u]niversities, members of the teaching staff and their assistants” from engaging “in activities directed against the existence and independence of the State, and against the integrity and indivisibility of the Nation and the Country”. This unity of the nation includes linguistic and cultural unity, as shown in the mandate that “No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education”. Do these guarantees of a unitary ethnostate for Turks influence how the Academics for Peace petition signatories and others were treated?
Lévy-Aksu: This question raises several important issues which it is impossible to fully answer here. The first issue is related to the tension between academic freedom and national security. This is not specific to Turkey (see for instance the much debated Prevent legislation in the UK), but since the beginning of the republic, regardless of the political orientation of the government (and with a few exceptions), the state’s approach to academic freedom has been particularly restrictive in Turkey.
The second issue has to do with Turkish nationalism and its negative perception of cultural and linguistic diversity, which has constituted an important aspect of the Kurdish issue in the last decades. Education in their mother tongue is a recurrent demand of the Kurdish rights movement. While the government seemed willing to develop a more conciliatory approach to the question during the peace negotiations, since the process collapsed, a rigid version of Turkish nationalism has been on the rise again. As an urgent call to stop state violence against civilians, the declaration of the Academics for Peace was not directly related to the question of cultural rights, but it emphasised the need for a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has lasted for decades. The attacks against the signatories illustrate how, under the current government, human rights and democratic values are treated as subversive when they are used to articulate a critique of the state. Meanwhile, countless citizens have been imprisoned or prosecuted for their political and cultural activities on behalf of Kurdish rights and democracy.
Index: Some observers emphasise the worsening situation for academics after the failed coup of 2016. Do you agree that 2016 was the turning point, or if not, when did these problems begin?
Lévy-Aksu: Attacks on academic freedom did not start with the failed coup of 2016, nor actually with the AKP government. With respect to the Academics for Peace signatories, the repression started right after the petition was released in January 2016. The signatories were immediately the targets of hate speech, the first dismissals occurred, and four signatories were imprisoned. However, after a state of emergency was proclaimed in July 2016, the process dramatically accelerated and the purges targeting Gulenists, the Academics for Peace signatories and other opponents became massive in higher education, as in other sectors. The civil servants dismissed by the emergency decrees did not only lose their jobs: their passports were revoked, and they received a life-long ban on public service. In addition, they continue to face informal practices of black listing and discrimination. This process has been described as “civil death” by some signatories and continue to have dramatic moral and material consequences.
Index: Are you worried or hopeful for the future of Turkey’s education system, and why?
Lévy-Aksu: The current situation of Turkey’s education system is extremely worrying. Successive reforms implemented in primary and secondary education have further disorganised the system, and all levels of education have experienced purges. Higher education has been decimated by these purges. Even though not all critical academics have been dismissed, the space for academic freedom has dramatically shrunk in all universities and many choose self-censorship to avoid possible sanctions. Both the Turkish Higher Education Council and the Scientific and Technological Research Council (TUBITAK) have been discredited by their prominent role in the dismissal and marginalisation of critical scholars. The students are the main victims of this process, both because they have lost many dedicated and inspiring teachers, but also because they are themselves targeted by repression, both at the disciplinary and criminal levels. There are tens of thousands students imprisoned today in Turkey.
Yet, the resilience of civil society in Turkey is remarkable, and international solidarity has enabled a number of critical scholars to continue their research away from Turkish academia. It is my hope that the experience academics have gained of alternative structures such as the solidarity academies and the international networks developed during these years will contribute to transforming the education system for the better when there is a political opening. [/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1566481960332-5be62801-2970-10″ taxonomies=”8843″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Academics for Peace unites 2,237 people supporting peace in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish-populated south-eastern provinces. Many are among the 1,128 signatories of a 2016 petition — We Will Not Be a Party To This Crime — calling for an end to violence in the region. The petition condemned state violence against the Kurds and Turkey’s violation of its own laws and international treaties.
As of 29 May 2019, 724 members of Academics for Peace are on trial and facing imprisonment. So far, 180 sentences – ranging from between 15 and 36 months – have been handed down.
One of the signatories of the petition, professor Füsun Üstel, began her 15-month jail term on 8 May 2019. She is the first of the signatories to begin her sentence.
In April, professor Tuna Altınel of Claude Bernard University in Lyon had his passport confiscated when he returned to Turkey for the Easter holidays. On 11 May, he was detained when he went to the police station to inquire about his passport. He remains in custody on charges relating to a conference he organised in Lyon on 21 February 2019 in solidarity with the Kurds.
Mehmet Ugur, a member of Academics for Peace and professor of economics and Institutions at University of Greenwich, spoke with Index on Censorship about the current situation for Turkish academics.
Jessica Ní Mhainín: Professor Füsun Üstel began her sentence on 8 May. How has this affected the members of Academics for Peace and particularly the signatories of the petition?
Mehmet Ugur: The Academics for Peace were very disappointed with the decision to imprison Fusun Ustel, although it wasn’t totally unexpected since the AFP trials have so far demonstrated that the courts are following strict directions from the government. Fusun Ustel is a highly respected professor of law, whose democratic credentials are as good as her academic ones. Her imprisonment created anger among the AFP community and beyond. The recent social media campaign has focused on efforts to free her, or to at least transfer her to an open prison [where there would be less restrictions on her movements and activities]. So on one hand, AFP have reacted with disappointment and anger, but on the other hand they have shown that they are resilient.
Ní Mhainín: In 2016, you wrote that the international scholarly community should “take practical, meaningful steps to express their solidarity with Academics for Peace and their commitment to academic freedom more broadly”. Do you think that academics in Europe have been supporting their Turkish colleagues?
Ugur: I am very proud to be part of an international academic community that has shown incredible support for AFP. When we asked for signatures, thousands of academics signed. When we asked for condemnation, many wrote individual letters. Some went the extra mile by helping those academics who managed to leave Turkey (before their passports were confiscated) by mentoring them and providing them with research fellowships. We are so grateful for that.
But we have also observed that the academic community could do more given the dangers posed by the violation of academic freedom in Turkey. The resilience of the global higher education system against political interventions is at stake. Some European institutions have been partnering with the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) or the Scientific and Technological Research Council (Tübi̇tak), despite the fact that these institutions have been directly complicit in the violation of academic freedom in Turkey. Incentivised by the Turkish government’s funding, some organisations and institutions continue to hold conferences and strike quick-return partnerships with universities that were complicit in the violation of academic freedom.
The academic community is not a uniform body; there are different views and tendencies. Still, I would urge my peers to think twice before accepting offers from complicit Turkish universities or higher education funding bodies. We need to be concerned about the resilience of global higher education system against populist, authoritarian, and managerialist threat – in Turkey and beyond.
Ní Mhainín: You have decided to not return to Turkey, at least for the foreseeable future. How have you come to this decision?
Ugur: I have made a decision not to return to Turkey because of legal uncertainties brought about by the Turkish courts’ reliance on flimsy evidence to arrest and imprison people. I was imprisoned in Turkey in the early 1980s after the military coup. The conditions were very harsh but we knew what charges we would face and what sentence we would get. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s regime is so unpredictable – and it is aided by the pro-government media (95% of the media outlets in Turkey), by an army of trolls who act both as informers and secret witnesses, and above all, by a compliant judiciary, who are driven by both career incentives and ideological enmity against progressive politics. This is why I feel that it would be unsafe to go to Turkey.
Having said that, many of my colleagues who are signatories to the peace petition are going to Turkey. Some are returning safe but some of them, as we know from the case of Tuna Altınel, are not. It all depends on whether someone complains about you on social media or if a speech you made some years ago has re-surfaced and caught the attention of the authorities. The uncertainty makes me feel that it is not worth going. But I would not say that my assessment is applicable to everyone.
Ní Mhainín: On 9 May 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that the imprisonment of Ayşe Çelik, who had been convicted of “disseminating propaganda” in favour of a terrorist organisation for calling on the media to “not keep silent” about the killings in South East Turkey, constituted a violation of freedom of expression. This ruling might offer Academics for Peace some hope. How has news of the court’s ruling been received?
Ugur: In the case of Ayşe Çelik, not only did the court rule that her call for peace in the Kurdish region didn’t constitute propaganda for a terrorist organisation, but it went further by saying that even if someone is spreading terrorist propaganda, it should be considered freedom of expression unless it incites terrorist action. Ayşe Çelik was convicted under the same article that has been used to sentence AFP signatories: article 7.2 of the Anti-terror Law, which carries a heavier sentence than article 3(1) of the Turkish Penal Code (contempt against the Turkish state), which had also been considered by the judiciary.
The AFP have already submitted an application to the Constitutional Court indicating that the actions of the AFP signatories should also be considered freedom of expression rather than terrorist propaganda. The court met on 29 May 2019 but failed to make a decision. There appears to be some tension between the court and the government, but I’m not very optimistic. If the court rules in AFP’s favour, we will celebrate of course, but if it doesn’t then the charade of the Turkish legal system will be proven at another level.
Ní Mhainín: How do you see the situation in Turkey progressing over the coming months and years?
Ugur: It’s very difficult to predict the future, but I think that in the short-term, the situation will continue to be bad for defenders of democracy and freedom in Turkey. This is because of the alliance that keeps the government in power, which is based on two parties: the AKP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The AKP is informed by a synthesis of religion and nationalism, while the MHP originates from a fascistic tradition going back to the 1950s. The current political establishment is against improving academic freedom, democracy or human rights, hence why you have academics, journalists, and people like Osman Kavala being tried and imprisoned.
The government has so far been using the Kurds to maintain its authoritarian, anti-democratic regime but I think that the set-up is increasingly becoming unsustainable. I believe that people are no longer as affected by the fear and intimidation campaigns that the government is instigating. The results of the local election [31 March 2019], along with the economic crisis, have weakened their campaigns. So there are some signs that this authoritarian regime is running out of steam – and this is a good sign! But I wouldn’t jump to celebrate yet; you need to have a critical mass of people gelling together into a collective assessment that the regime is no longer sustainable. However, I feel that this looks more likely now than it did before the local elections.
I think we will eventually see a gradual erosion of the authoritarian, nationalist and fascist elements in Turkey. Where will it lead? I can’t tell. Changing and rebuilding the institutions will be a massive task. I’m not clear about how that can be done — it will be a challenge.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1559732361631-5b64146f-397d-7″ taxonomies=”55″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”106898″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]“Turkey is incarcerating its academics!”
This is what Tuna Altınel (Claude Bernard University of Lyon 1, France) wrote to the European solidarity networks on 8 May 2019, as Füsun Üstel was taken into prison in Eskişehir.
A political science professor from Galatasaray University, Füsun Üstel is one of the 2,237 signatories of the peace declaration issued in January 2016. She is in jail for denouncing the Turkish state’s violation of the basic rights and humanitarian law in Kurdish cities and towns of Turkey.
Three days after coming out in support of Professor Üstel, Tuna Altınel, Associate Professor of Mathematics, was detained on 11 May 2019. He is in jail for speaking at a conference organised in Lyon on the 21st of February 2019 by an association of solidarity with Kurdish people.
Academics for Peace have been subject to ruthless waves of show trials for defending peace and democracy. Turkish judges are outbidding each other in handing down sentences that the ‘Chief’, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been demanding.
We declare our solidarity with Academics for Peace, and with all progressives under threat in Turkey. We call on the UK government, the Parliament, the universities and the funding councils to be on the side of democracy and academic freedom in Turkey. Appeasing the Turkish regime will bring only disastrous consequences for the UK and the wider Europe.
We call on fellow academics to suspend cooperation with Turkish higher education institutions that have been complicit in the crimes against Academics for Peace.
Academics for Peace UK
Britanya Alevi Federasyonu
Index on Censorship
SPOT – Solidarity With The People of Turkey[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-exclamation” color=”custom” background_style=”rounded” background_color=”black” size=”xl” align=”right” custom_color=”#dd3333″][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]
Show YOUR solidarity by joining a protest for imprisoned academics in Turkey.
Saturday, 18 May at 1pm
Opposite 10 Downing Street, London[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1558110088169-0e265c33-782d-9″ taxonomies=”55″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]UPDATE: Prof. Zübeyde Füsun Üstel, whose 1 year and 3 months prison sentence was upheld on 25 February 2019, is due to begin her prison sentence within ten days, Frontline Defenders reported on 30 April 2019.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]
A Turkish academic, who was given a 15-month jail sentence for signing a petition calling for peace in south-east Turkey, has had her sentence upheld and now faces prison. She is likely to be the first academic to be imprisoned for signing the petition.
Zübeyde Füsun Üstel’s 15-month jail sentence, originally imposed in April 2018 for signing a petition drafted by Academics for Peace, was upheld by the Turkish Court of Appeals on 25 February 2019. Üstel is a retired professor from Galatasaray University in Istanbul.
This decision by the appellate court means that she is in danger of being imprisoned very soon.
The peace petition — We Will Not Be a Party To This Crime — was initially signed by 1,128 academics and grew to 2,020 in the weeks after it was released in January 2016. Since then, the signatories have been subjected to a range of actions against them, 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.
Academics for Peace is an organisation of university professors and graduate students who drafted and launched the petition, which denounced the human rights violations committed by the government in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, demanded access to these areas for independent national and international observers, and called for a lasting peace to be secured.
“I think Professor Fusun Üstel’s case is a new illustration of the criminalisation of free speech in present-day Turkey,” said Noemi Levy-Aksu, an academic for peace whose case is still pending.
Üstel was the first academic to refuse the legal provision the courts offer when prison sentences are less than two years. The provision involves suspending the pronouncement of judgment for a period of five years, during which the defendant is supposed to refrain from committing further “crimes”. Since what constitutes a crime in Turkey can be arbitrarily changed or determined by the political establishment, this provision aims to discipline defendants by placing them under supervision by the government. However, the advantage to the provision is that the suspect is left with no criminal record, barring their good behavior.
In her court hearing in April 2018, Üstel refused the offer of a suspension and was consequently sentenced to 15 months in prison. She appealed, but it was rejected on 25 February. She could become the first academic to be imprisoned since the trials began in December 2017. Nine other academics have refused the suspension provision and are waiting to appear before the court of appeals, according to the Academics for Peace website.
Following the confirmation of Üstel’s sentence, new initiatives have been started to raise awareness about her and all of the other Academics for Peace cases.
“An open letter has been endorsed by Academics for Peace-US and UK, academic and human rights organisations and more than 1500 academics from all around the world. Other initiatives are ongoing, especially in Germany, France, the US and the UK, where many academics from Turkey are now based,” said Levy-Aksu.
Investigations were opened by the government individually against each petition signatory on charges of “conducting propaganda for a terrorist organisation.” This is the charge professor Üstel is currently facing, as per the Article No. 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law No. 3713.
Some judges, including one dissenting judge in Üstel’s appeal case, believe the academics should not be tried under the anti-terror law on the charge of propagandizing for a terrorist organisation. Instead, they argue that Üstel’s and other cases should be considered as per the Article 301 of the Turkish penal code on the charge of “degrading the state of the republic of Turkey”.
“From the beginning, the trial of the Academics for Peace relied on very shaky grounds, both in terms of procedure and substance. The inconsistency of the decisions taken by the different courts show the arbitrariness of the process. Verdicts have been erratic and varied from 15 to 36 months imprisonment,” said Levy-Aksu.
Almost 600 of the signatories are currently undergoing trials on grounds of engagement in “propaganda for a terrorist organisation.”
Üstel published a series of articles in Turkey-based and international journals of social sciences. Her articles have mostly focused on the history of Turkey, nationalism and issues of identity.
Since its founding in 2012, Academics for Peace has organised different actions to highlight attacks on the Kurds in south-east Turkey, and to call for the Turkish government to change its policy towards the Kurds. In 2012 it issued a statement showing support for Kurdish prisoners’ demands for peace in Turkey. This statement was signed by 264 academics from over 50 universities.
Since January 2016 when they published the peace petition, the Academics for Peace case has remained a symbol of the ongoing crackdown on the right to protest and speak out against the government in Turkey.
“In the current circumstances this will highly depend on governmental policy. The other venue to challenge the decision is the European Court of Human Rights, before which several applications have already been brought,” said Levy-Aksu.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1556799978592-db3cfbd5-6c56-0″ taxonomies=”7355, 8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row]