In January 2016, more than 2,000 academics signed a strongly worded petition calling for a resumption of the peace process and an end to what they described as the “deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples” in the southeastern region of Turkey, where the Turkish military was waging a campaign against militants affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK).
It was a petition more or less like any other that an antiwar academic might sign. But for the act of signing it, more than 700 scholars have been criminally charged with making propaganda for a terrorist organization, according to data published on the website of the signatories, who call themselves Academics for Peace.
More specifically, the academics are charged with propagandizing for the PKK. Nearly 200 petition signatories have been sentenced: the most common sentence is a 15-month suspended prison sentence, with sentences ranging all the way up to 36 months of imprisonment. Two of the signatories -- Füsun Üstel, a political scientist with expertise on nationalism and Turkish national identity, and Tuna Altinel, a mathematician and assistant professor at University Claude Bernard Lyon 1, in France -- are currently in prison.
A letter from the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom sent to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on June 11 argued that the variation in sentencing lengths imposed on signatories is arbitrary. The letter notes that under Turkish law sentences more than two years in length cannot be suspended, and says that “at the moment a total of 35 academics are at imminent risk of imprisonment.” The letter notes as well the "worrisome development" that scholars who were based at universities outside Turkey at the time they signed the petition have begun to be charged.
Apart from the criminal proceedings, hundreds of the signatories lost their jobs at Turkish universities.
“The specific targeting of Academics for Peace is also an attempted transformation of Turkish academia,” said Başak Ertür, a lecturer in law at Birkbeck, University of London, and one of the approximately 700 petition signatories who are facing charges.
“The targeting of Academics for Peace is a sign that says [the Turkish government] will not keep any academics who make statements critical of the state or the government. We will not allow them to survive in academia,” she said.
Another internationally based academic facing charges for signing the petition, Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, was dismissed from his position as an assistant professor at Istanbul Commerce University in February 2016 and left Turkey the following April.
Now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, he received his indictment last month and has a hearing date scheduled for October. He does not plan to return to Turkey and is exploring options to have a lawyer represent him without appearing in person in court.
Yenigün views the proceedings against him and his colleagues as illegitimate and says the act of signing the petition was an act of free speech. “There’s a downward slope in terms of Turkey’s direction and its democratic status, and the loss of independence by the judiciary is part of that,” he said.
Human rights and academic freedom monitoring groups describe the ongoing prosecutions of the petition signatories as assaults on their academic freedom and their freedoms of expression and association. The June 11 letter from MESA’s academic freedom committee noted that the U.S. Department of Justice declined a request from the Turkish government to collect testimony from Baki Tezcan, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, who has been charged for signing the petition, on First Amendment-related grounds.
The letter from the Justice Department states that the First Amendment “provides for broad freedom of expression” subject to certain limitations, including “situations in which the speech comprises a true threat or incites imminent violence. In this case, there has not be a sufficient showing in this regard.”
Meanwhile, more than 6,000 people have signed a petition calling for the release of Altinel, the France-based academic who was jailed May 11 during a trip to Turkey and is one of two signatories currently in prison, and multiple mathematical groups have issued statements on his behalf.
France’s Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation issued a June 24 statement saying that “France is doing everything in its power to free him, and allow his return to the university at which he teaches.”
France’s Conference of University Presidents also recently discussed the imprisonments of Altinel and Üstel -- who taught at a Francophone university in Istanbul, Galatasaray University -- with the Turkish ambassador to France. The group said in a statement that it “cannot foresee sustainable scientific cooperation between Turkish and French universities without prior rectification of these individual situations.”
The ongoing prosecutions of Academics for Peace signatories have happened against a worsening backdrop for academic freedom in Turkey, which took a decidedly negative turn after a coup attempt in July 2016, six months after the publication of the peace petition. After the failed coup, thousands of academics were dismissed from their positions and many were arrested or charged based on suspicions of links to Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic cleric in exile who the Turkish government alleges is behind the coup attempt (Gülen has denied involvement).
The Turkish embassy did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this article. Shortly after the petition was published in January 2016, President Erdoğan took to television to condemn the signatories for “treason.”
“Unfortunately, these so-called academics claim that the state is carrying out a massacre,” Erdoğan said, according to reporting from The New York Times. “Hey, you so-called intellectuals: You are dark people. You are not intellectuals.”
Erdoğan added, “They should see with their eyes whether the problem is a violation by the state or the hijacking of our citizens’ rights and freedoms by the terrorist organization.”
A report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the campaign in southeastern Turkey from July 2015 to December 2015 in response to alleged PKK terrorist activities in the area found that about 2,000 people were killed, including 800 members of the Turkish security forces and 1,200 local residents, “of which an unspecified number may have been involved in violent or nonviolent actions against the state.”
The report described “numerous cases of excessive use of force” and said “the most serious human rights violations reportedly occurred during periods of curfew, when entire residential areas were cut off and movement restricted around the clock for several days at a time.”
"In the late fall of 2015, the PKK was embedded in some of the majority-Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey and the Turkish army went into those cities. There was heavy fighting, but the fighting also basically blocked the urban dwellers in their homes. They couldn’t get out; they couldn’t get access to water and food,” said Tezcan, who was detained for several hours when he returned to Turkey last week and has a court date on July 18 for his signature on the petition.
"Until the summer of 2015, there was a peace process," Tezcan continued. "The petition was basically asking that the government goes back to the peace process instead of continuing the war, and yet the Turkish authorities framed this as the signatories making a case for PKK terrorism."