Cases against Academics for Peace have become emblematic of the attacks on freedom of expression in Turkey


Noémi Lévy-Aksu

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]

Turkish petition for peace puts academic freedom on trial

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]For Turkish academics, signing a dissenting petition can mean expulsion from their job, the country or even jail time. In Noémi Lévy-Aksu’s case, signing the Academics for Peace petition, “We will not be a party to this crime!” meant losing her teaching position at Boğaziçi University.

In March 2017, Lévy-Aksu had flown from London to Turkey to take an exam to become an associate professor. After the exam, she flew back to London to continue her fellowship at the British Academy with an affiliation with Birkbeck College. However, two days later she received an email saying she had been dismissed from her teaching position at Boğaziçi. Following the news of her work and residence permit cancellation, she was notified that she had passed her associate professor exam. In April, she became a Turkish citizen after applying for citizenship in January 2016.

The confusing whirlwind of events left Lévy-Aksu jobless with Turkish citizenship and associate professor credentials. Her story is far from unique as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased his government’s squeeze on dissenting voices —  whether journalistic, legal or academic.

While best known for the January 2016  “We will not be a party to this crime!” petition, Academics for Peace advocates for peace between Kurds and Turks and condemns government violations of its own and international laws. The organisation, which formed in 2012, is an amalgamation of academics from over 50 universities.

With over 2,000 signatures, the petition hurtled Turkish academics into the dissenting spotlight, prompting Erdoğan to arrest and dismiss academics through emergency decrees. The purges only escalated after the unsuccessful coup in July 2016. Since last November, many signatories have been held on criminal charges and accused of terror propaganda. Ostensible “terrorists” in Turkey, professors and other intellectuals like Lévy-Aksu have been persecuted, which has led to job loss, passport revocation and prison.

In Lévy-Aksu’s case, she has been one of the luckier academics. With her dual French and Turkish citizenship, Lévy-Aksu is able to easily enter and leave the country where she attends hearings of her fellow colleagues and offers her continued solidarity. She is currently finishing up her fellowship in London and recently began studying law at BPP University Law School.

Lévy-Aksu spoke with Sarah Wu of Index on Censorship about the current situation for Turkish academics. Below is an edited version of their conversation:

Index: What role did your participation in Academics for Peace play in your dismissal?

Lévy-Aksu: That was that exact reason why I was fired. It was openly stated. I had been involved in Academics for Peace while I was in Turkey, and when I came to London, I became involved in its UK branch. The Council of Higher Education gave no reason when they revoked my work permit at my university, which was the same case for another foreign academic in the sociology department. When I decided to sue the Council of Higher Education, my lawyer first asked what the reason for dismissal was, and they then said the petition was the main reason. This is the core issue in the ongoing administrative lawsuit I opened against the Higher Education Council and Boğaziçi.

Index: Were your reasons for signing the petition personal or professional?

Lévy-Aksu: I think it was a reaction motivated by anger and the need to say something against what was going on, not only as an academic but as a citizen. Although I was not a Turkish citizen at the time, as a human being I have this duty to speak up and not to stay silent. It was a way to morally and politically react to what was going on and doing it collectively made sense at the time.

Since the beginning of the Turkish Republic, the Kurdish region and Kurdish populations have been consistently targeted by state oppression. Seeing this happening again and again, [signing this petition] was just a way to say, ‘Not again’. The petition was a way, especially for Turkish academics not in the Kurdish region, to say that they were concerned, aware of what was going on, and eager to voice their disagreement.

Index: Do you have any anxiety while traveling to and from Turkey?

Lévy-Aksu: Being a foreigner at the time worked in my favor. My main concern, besides being dismissed, was being expelled from the country, which is quite common for foreign troublemakers. So I applied and surprisingly got the citizenship after being dismissed from the university. It’s funny because I lost my job and then became Turkish. I am therefore lucky enough to travel and I go to Turkey as often as I can as it is still the place I feel I belong to.

Every time I go to Turkey, I hear a lot of criticisms in private by people who are not just political, but by people who want this oppression to stop. Even if they are not leftist or Kurdish, more or less everyone has been affected by the purges or repression. But it’s different when it comes to public discontent. People are now arrested for a tweet or a social media post. A line can send you to prison. So you have to be really brave. The space for opposition has dramatically shrunk.

I still think it’s remarkable that people are still ready to protest despite risking arrest, and if you think about western societies, I’m not sure there would be more resistance in the same context. Who is ready to sacrifice his career, to lose his job, but also his liberty? I think this is a problem that not only concerns Turkey. You need to be really brave to continue speaking up.

There are so many examples of academics and non academics who are, despite all risks, resisting in Turkey. Showing solidarity is the least we can do.

Index: How did the rest of your colleagues fare?

Lévy-Aksu: It depends. My university has been spared of the purges besides me and my other colleague, Prof. Abbas Vali. But in comparison to other universities, I have been much luckier than many others. A great number of friends are stuck in Turkey because their passports have been revoked and are having difficulties finding a job outside of academia. Colleagues in London and other parts of Europe are also in difficult situations. For them, sometimes their passports are revoked after they come here, so now they are stuck and visa renewals are difficult. If they go back, they know they won’t be able to leave Turkey again. It’s a very complex situation, not to mention the financial and job search difficulties. In addition, several signatories of the petition have already been sentenced to 15 months imprisonment (with possibility of a suspensive appeal) for terror propaganda and hundreds of other cases are going on.

Index: Erdoğan was arrested for reading a poem and now he’s doing the same thing with academics. Do you think he is thin-skinned and fearful for his reputation, or is there a deeper meaning behind the academic purges?

Lévy-Aksu: He is relying on the lack of sound democratic tradition, which is what all the previous leaders of the Turkey have done in the past. But of course, the level of control on the institution he has is probably unparalleled in Turkish history.

He has established a system that attempts to control all of society, which attempts to reduce all opposition. It is done now complicitly by many decision makers. These people in institutions are, either by ideological conviction or by fear, doing what is expected of them so that the power can maintain itself. The system, which is bigger than Erdoğan himself, is frightening. It extends to the justice institution, the education system and police. Even more worrying are the mechanisms of denunciation, the use of society and encouragement to denounce your neighbors, your colleagues.

We see it in the universities. Colleagues are denounced by students. Students are denounced by students. You have all these mechanisms that contribute to the polarisation of society and increase fear and potential violence. On both sides, you feel this palpable tension. Even if Erdoğan left, it would not be easy to solve.

Index: Where do you think Erdoğan is taking the university system?

Lévy-Aksu: There’s a push to make religious values the core of education, and it’s something we’ve already felt even before the coup. This increasingly conservative, religious and nationalistic discourse means certain topics can’t be discussed, which means academics can be denounced for expressing critical opinions.

This is the case at my former university. There have been many arrests of students and police are on campus. There was an incident between pro-government and leftist students after the Afrin operation and Erdoğan called for the arrest of those students and a ‘cleaning of the university,’ calling them terrorists, communists and treacherous students and saying they should not be given the right to education. Police are on campus, they are arresting students from the dormitories, and they check IDs in the library – this is what’s happening.

They’re establishing fear not only for politically engaged students but all the academic community, who expect university to be a place of knowledge, not a place of control and repression. Unfortunately, every kind of institution and place of social life is transforming into a place of surveillance and control, and this is the case for universities all over Turkey. Most of them have been extensively purged and most are controlled by the police and administration and by the collaboration of state representatives.

I think it’s a very dark picture. It’s getting darker and darker especially with the beginning of the Turkish military operation in Syria, which again gave a new reason for emphasising nationalist, religious values and arresting people who protested against this military intervention.

Index: Do you think the best form of support for the academics in Turkey is to show solidarity, is it enough?

Lévy-Aksu: This is an ongoing debate among the academics who are still in Turkey and those who are abroad. Of course solidarity is important. It can be financial solidarity with the academics dismissed, it can be helping an academic pursue their research and networking, or giving them access to online classes if they cannot move. Academics for Peace networks in Europe and the US are lobbying to encourage organisations such as Scholars at Risk or CARA, state or regional institutions and foundations to create positions for dismissed academics. In the UK, we have just established the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research to develop projects and partnership to support dismissed academics and, beyond this, critical research and production of knowledge.  

Another possible form is one that started last year by the Academics for Peace. The call to freeze all cooperation with complicit universities. It’s a call that has been made by the Academics for Peace networks in the UK, France, Germany and the US. It established a list of complicit universities and calls for academics not to cooperate formally with them. It means not participating in conferences organised by complicit universities and not inviting directors of the universities. As an institutional boycott, it targets the institutions that are persecuting the ideas and opinions of academics.

Until now, it’s had some limited impact. One of the reasons is that it’s not easy for academics to understand the situation in Turkey. Colleagues in Turkey too are divided on this. For some, they think it’s important to keep strong relations with foreign institutions, including bringing colleagues to the university even if it witnessed some arbitrary dismissal. For the ones that have been dismissed, they are expecting this kind of reaction.

I understand there can be reluctance against boycotting, but I think the bare minimum is for people who go to Turkey is to be aware of what is going on. Foreign academics should be able to raise criticisms or questions if they choose to visit these institutions. Otherwise, you become complicit in a way through your silence and not seeing what’s going on. Academics who visit these complicit universities are strongly resented by colleagues who are in Turkey and feel invisible and unable to travel. I think awareness of what’s going on in different countries and global solidarity is important.

I understand that colleagues who have worked with Turkish colleagues for a long time enjoy going to Turkey because it relates to their fieldwork and they have developed fruitful academic collaborations there. Yet knowing these institutions that have persecuted other academics for their opinions should raise moral questions before you visit. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523868900741-6ff5bed6-c05b-7″ taxonomies=”8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Free speech on trial in Turkey

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Free Speech On Trial in Turkey

Both before and after the state of emergency that followed the botched coup in 2016, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies, rolling back an essentially weak democracy. Now a truly authoritarian regime is in place and instigates multiple attacks against fundamental rights and democratic institutions, such as arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of critical voices, extensive use of emergency decrees, massive purges of the state institutions and the witch hunt against the Academics for Peace, signatories of the Peace petition. As it is generally the case, free speech and academic freedom have been major casualties of this authoritarian drift. Gathering academics, lawyers and human rights defenders, this panel will offer a critical insight into current legal and political developments in Turkey and discuss the way forward in the defence of freedom of expression and academic freedom in the country.

Panel 1 – 14.30 – 16.00 Free Speech under Threat in Turkey: A Legal Approach

Chair: Noémi Lévy-Aksu (Birkbeck College)

Ayse Bingöl (Media Legal Defence): The criminalisation of speech under state of emergency regime.

Bill Bowring (Birkbeck College, Professor of Law): Recent Strasbourg case law on freedom of expression in Turkey.

Oya Aydın (Lawyer): What are the Academics for Peace accused of?

Panel 2 – 16.15 – 17.30 Trial Observation, Legal Intervention and Advocacy

Chair: Mehmet Uğur (University of Greenwich)

Georgia Nash (Article 19)

Sarah Clarke (Pen International)

Hanna Machlin (Index on Censorship)[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]

When: Tuesday 30 January 2018, 2:30-5:30pm
Where: Birkbeck College, London (Map)
Tickets: Free. Register here