Prosecutions of Academics Reflects Dramatic Deterioration of Rights
(New York, March 24, 2016) — The Turkish government’s disciplinary investigations and criminal prosecutions against scholars who signed a “petition for peace” in the Kurdish regions of the country violates fundamental rights to free expression and reflects the dramatic deterioration of civil and political rights in the country, said Project 2015, a group of Armenian, Turkish and American intellectuals committed to justice for the Armenian Genocide. Project 2015 called on the government to release the professors and drop all charges against them.
“With this latest attack on academics, the Turkish government has made clear that it will brook no criticism – not from journalists, not from scholars, and certainly not from political opposition members,” said Nancy Kricorian, a Project 2015 Board Member. “Scholars of Turkey inside and outside the country are terrified that they will be subject to travel bans, dismissal, and worse – arrest and detention – for doing their jobs as independent scholars advancing knowledge and critical inquiry.”
On March 14, 2016, judicial prosecutors detained and interrogated Professors Esra Mungan, Kıvanç Ersoy and Muzaffer Kaya in connection with a meeting they held on March 10, 2016 at which they reiterated their call for peace on behalf of the Academics for Peace/Istanbul, a subset of the signatories of the original peace petition. Following the interrogation, the a court issued arrest warrants against the academics and kept them in custody on charges of “terrorism” under the counter-terrorism law, alleging that the petition was aligned with a statement by Bese Hozat, one of the leaders of a Kurdish militant splinter group, KCK (Kurdish Communities Union). A fourth professor at the meeting, Meral Camci, avoided interrogation and arrest because [he] was outside the country.
“The government’s Kafkaesque logic equating academic reading a peace petition as a collusion in terrorism is laughable if it weren’t so tragic,” said Keith David Watenpaugh, a Project 2015 Board Member. “In President Erdoğan’s unique world view, any expression of support for a peace process with the Kurds is a terrorist act.”
The arrests and detentions of these scholars come in the wake President Erdoğan’s speech describing the signatories of the peace petition as “so-called academics” and “traitors.” Following this speech, there has been a broad pattern of government persecution, encompassing suspensions and terminations of academics from positions at universities, detention and interrogation of faculty members by prosecutors, and a spate of threats and attacks against academic signatories by vigilante actors.
“Just over 100 years ago, the Turkish government undertook a mass extermination campaign against the Armenian population, starting with the arrest and deportation of over 200 intellectuals and artists,” said Kricorian. “It is disheartening that 100 years later, the government is still persecuting intellectuals.”
In addition to the arrest of these professors, police detained Chris Stephenson, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University who accompanied his colleagues to court as a gesture of support, citing Newroz invitations by the pro-Kurdish HDP party found in his bag. The HDP is a lawful political party that is currently represented in the Turkish parliament. Carrying documentation from the party cannot constitute a lawful basis for arrest in a country that respects rights of political association and political participation. The prosecutor recommended the deportation of Professor Stephenson, who has lived and worked as an academic in Turkey for over twenty years on a valid, indefinite work visa, significantly undermines the rights of foreign academics working in Turkey.
“Stephenson’s detention and proposed deportation sends a dangerous message to any international scholar seeking to study and teach in Egypt: come at your own peril!” said Watenpaugh. “Turkey risks losing its ties to the international academic community with this brazen attack on a foreign academic.”
In addition to these arrests of petition signatories, the Minister of Justice transferred the cases of 395 other Ankara-based signatories to the jurisdiction of the Istanbul prosecutor’s office to be investigated under the country’s anti-terrorism laws. The Ankara prosecutor’s office was already handling these cases and had determined that the signatories would be investigated for insulting Turkish institutions under Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, but that there was no basis for pursuing terrorism-related charges. The Justice Minister’s decision to transfer these cases to Istanbul has been widely interpreted as a rejection of that determination and a change of forum designed to ensure that the signatories are investigated under far more grave anti-terrorism provisions. Such a decision by an executive ministry to override the judgment and jurisdiction of a prosecutor represents a direct violation of the separation of powers. Under Turkish law, only a court or the High Council of Prosecutors and Judges may make determinations concerning jurisdictional competence to review cases.
The immediate context for this sudden escalation in the government’s campaign of prosecution against Peace Petition signatories is the terrorist attack that occurred in Ankara on March 13, 2016, for which a PKK-splinter group has claimed responsibility, similar to the broader campaign against the Peace Petition signatories following earlier terror attacks in Istanbul in January.
“Rather than focus its energies on increasing security to protect citizens of Turkey from the real terror threats they are facing, the Turkish government seems more intent on harassing academics and curbing freedoms in the country,” said Kricorian. “Erdoğan can’t mask failures of Turkish intelligence by his diversionary attack on civil society.”
In a speech on March 15, following the most recent Ankara attack, President Erdoğan proposed revising Turkish anti-terrorism laws to include the activities of academics, journalists and NGO advocates. In his speech, President Erdoğan stated that “the fact that someone is an academic, a journalist or an NGO director doesn’t change the fact that s/he is a terrorist”. Following this speech, pro-government media initiated a new campaign of defamation against academics and others. The headline of the mass circulation newspaper, Star, on March 16, 2016 was “Unarmed Terrorist”, and the attached article declared support for redefining terrorism to treat opinion columns and tweets as logistical support for terrorism.
Any proposal to broaden the definition of terrorism to formally encompass peaceful expression by academics, journalists and NGO advocates, would violate basic human rights protections under Turkish and international law. As a member state of the Council of Europe and a signatory of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Turkey is required to protect freedom of thought, expression and assembly. Turkey is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), all of which protect the rights to freedom of expression and association, which are at the heart of academic freedom. These rights are enshrined in articles 25-27 of the Turkish Constitution.
Turkey should drop all charges against and release Professors Mungan, Ersoy, and Kaya, drop all charges against Professor Camcı, allow Professor Stephenson to return to the country to resume his position at Istanbul Bilgi University, and ensure that all of the investigations – disciplinary and criminal – against the Peace Petition signatories are terminated or reversed. Turkey should reject any proposal to amend the criminal laws to broaden the definition of terrorism to encompass the lawful and protected activities of academics, journalists and NGO advocates.
New York: Nancy Kricorian, firstname.lastname@example.org +1.646.234.8529
Davis: Keith Watenpaugh, Kwtenpaugh@ucdavis.edu