A total of 822 academics appeared in 56 criminal courts across Turkey as part of “Academics for Peace” trials; courts found signatories of the petition “guilty” in all trials that concluded. Following the Constitutional Court’s judgment, 568 academics have been acquitted
On 11 January 2016, a number of academics from various universities in Turkey signed a petition titled “We will not be a party to this crime,” calling an end to the violence during the curfews that the government had started to impose in 2015 in the mainly Kurdish-populated southeastern cities.
Drafted within the context of a campaign that started with the call of the Academics for Peace initiative, the petition demanded an end to civilian deaths and called for peace. It was signed by 1,128 academics in total.
One day after the declaration of the petition, President and Chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a public statement in which he called the signatories of the petition “intellectual waste.” A statement from the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) declaring that “necessary steps would be taken” followed shortly after.
In the face of reaction from authorities, various groups, ranging from journalists to filmmakers and from writers to LGBTI+ associations, in addition to the students of the petition’s signatories, issued petitions expressing support to Academics for Peace.
By the end of the campaign as of 20 January 2016, a total of 2,212 academics and researchers from Turkey and 2,279 academics from abroad had signed the petition.
10 March 2016: Press statement
In the wake of the petition, Academics for Peace started becoming the subject of investigations and dismissals. Four academics from the group, Assistant Professors Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya and Meral Camcı and Associate Professor Kıvanç Ersoy, held a press conference on 10 March 2016, in which they revealed what they had been through since the petition. Mungan, Kaya, Camcı and Ersoy were subsequently taken into custody on the charge of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization,” which is criminalized by Article 7/2 of the Turkish Anti-Terror Law (TMK). All four were later released on 22 April 2016.
Some 406 Academics for Peace have been dismissed from public service through statutory decrees issued as part of the State of Emergency (OHAL), which was declared on 20 July 2016 following the coup attempt of 15 July 2016 and which lasted for two years.
5 December 2017: Trials of academics begin
While the trial of Mungan, Kaya, Camcı and Ersoy was being overseen by the Istanbul 13th Assize Court, mass criminal trials were launched against Academics for Peace on 5 December 2017. In the indictment, prepared by Public Prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt, the academics were charged with Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law that criminalizes the act of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
Although the charges were based on the same petition, academics were put on trial individually before different assize courts. When the trials began, although academics and their lawyers requested the joinder of trials, arguing that the same act had occurred by signing the same petition, their requests were denied. Only seven courts in Istanbul decided to join the trials at their disposal.
The first stage of massive trials started with the prosecution of academics who signed the petition from various universities in Istanbul.
Some of the signatory academics were tried in courts outside Istanbul — in Ankara, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, İzmir, Kocaeli, Manisa, Mersin, Tunceli, Van and Düzce. Cases against some of the academics were transferred between courts in Istanbul and in other provinces, where the investigation was commenced, based on decisions of non-jurisdiction. Across Turkey, a total of 822 academics stood trial in 56 different courts. While 763 of those academics were among the petition’s first signatories, 59 were among second signatories.
In all 204 trials that concluded, academics were found “guilty.” Among them, 146 academics were sentenced to 1 year and 3 months imprisonment; 18 were sentenced to 1 year, 10 months, and 15 days; eight were sentenced to 1 year and 6 months; two were sentenced to 1 year, 6 months, and 22 days; 17 were sentenced to 2 years and 3 months; seven were sentenced to 2 years and 6 months; five were sentenced to 2 years and 1 month; and one academic was sentenced to 3 years. The execution of convictions against 36 of these academics was not suspended because 29 of the sentences were over 2 years (as per Article 286 of the Code of Criminal Procedure [CMK]) and seven academics denied the application of the “deferment of the announcement of the verdict [HAGB].”
Professor Füsun Üstel from Galatasaray University, whose conviction was affirmed by a regional court of appeals, was imprisoned on 8 May 2019. Üstel was released on 22 July on probation.
Convictions for “Aiding a terrorist organization”
In the indictment filed by Public Prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt, the accusation against the academics was “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.” However, as the trials were under way, one of the trial courts, the Istanbul 25th Assize Court, changed the accusation and sentenced seven academics to over 2 years of imprisonment for “knowingly and willingly aiding an organization without being its member,” pursuant to articles 314/2 and 220/7 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and Article 5/1 of the Anti-Terror Law.
Adding new evidence to case files
The Istanbul 37th Assize Court added “new evidence” to the case files about Şebnem Korur Fincancı, Gençay Gürsoy and Mesut Yeğen during their trials. The document that was added to the file about Şebnem Korur Fincancı was a report about the curfews, published by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), of which Fincancı is the president. The report was previously submitted to the court by Fincancı’s legal representatives as part of their defense.
On 12 February 2019, the same court sentenced Gülsün Güvenli to 1 year and 3 months of imprisonment and deferred the announcement of her sentence. The court also imposed on Güvenli a judicial control measure in the form of an obligation to visit the family of a soldier who was killed in Hakkari on 5 August 2015. The court ruled that the process be supervised by the Department of Probation. The trial court prosecutor Alaattin Çolak appealed that ruling and the court lifted this obligation on 22 February 2019. The court did not impose on Güvenli any further obligations.
Interrogations by judges
Throughout the trials, the academics never stopped defending peace and stating that the purpose of the petition was calling for peace. The trial courts heard hundreds of defense statements by the academics, explaining the link between their respective fields of study (such as psychology, sociology, etc.) and their reason for signing the petition. Some of the statements led to “bizarre” questions from the judges and defendants were subjected to a degrading language.
In the courtrooms, presiding judges and prosecutors alike frequently intervened in academics’ statements, citing “political discourse” or “insulting government bodies” among grounds for intervening. Although most of the courts approved the requests for letters rogatory for the academics who live and work abroad, some courts rejected this request, saying, “This is a [criminal] court, the defendant must be present in the courtroom in person.”
One of the presiding judges who criticized the academics for signing the petition, said: “Instead of issuing a petition, you should have raised money to help people there. This is not an issue that can be solved while drinking whiskey in Beşiktaş, sitting across the Bosporus as you were doing.”
Some of the questions the academics were directed in the courtrooms included: “Have you ever signed a petition before? Although there have been numerous terrorist attacks before, why haven’t you signed any petitions before? What caught our attention is that you have not signed any such petitions in protest of terrorist attacks”; “Did you make a call on the PKK like the one you made on the state? Why didn’t you address the [PKK]?”; “Are you against the violence used by the state in order to protect its sovereignty”; “Did you read the petition before signing it? What was your motivation to sign?”; “What would have happened if the state did not intervene?”
Constitutional Court application
Ten academics who have been given prison sentences for signing the petition, including Üstel, lodged individual applications with the Constitutional Court, claiming that the proceedings against them violated their right to freedom of expression. Combining the applications lodged by 10 academics, the Constitutional Court ruled on 26 July 2019 that “the applicants’ freedom of expression has been violated.” The top court also mentioned academic freedom in its judgment and reminded that universities contribute to social development through scientific research.
“The Constitutional Court’s consideration that this declaration should fall under the protection of the freedom of expression set out in Article 26 of the Constitution does not mean that it shares and supports the thoughts and ideas stated in the declaration,” the top court wrote in its judgment.
The top court’s judges made the following remarks on how the academics’ freedom of expression had been violated:
“The trial courts have not been able to show any evidence exceeding the assumption that those who drafted and signed the petition acted on the instructions of the PKK. Although the petition contains harsh words and heavy accusations, it has been concluded that those who use public power were invited to stay within the law and to resolve issues with methods that exclude violence. The acceptance of any statement of thought as a propaganda of a terrorist organization on the grounds that it is made with the purpose of creating a perception cannot be considered as a legal assessment.
“The use of anger language in a critical statement of thought also has the purpose of shaking the addressee. Indeed, the applicants stated that they had been trying to make their voices heard to end the violence that had been going on for a long time and that their aim was to attract the attention of the authorities, and they therefore preferred shocking and disturbing expressions. No matter how heavy, sanctions should not be imposed on people because of their opinions and thoughts that criticize the State’s anti-terrorism policies.
“The applicants lead their lives based on their statements of thought and doing research; attending conferences and seminars, speaking in discussions, putting forward theses are part of their professions. Therefore, freedom of expression is particularly important for academics. Even if it is suspended, it must be admitted that punishment has a disruptive effect on the applicants and that even if they eventually spend the probation period without a new conviction, there is a risk that people will refrain from expressing their thoughts in the future.
“The purpose of universities is to conduct scientific research, to contribute to social development, and to raise qualified labor. Achieving these goals is not only possible by producing science and by encouraging thinking and producing science. In addition, it is essential to support the expression of opinions. Therefore, the opinions expressed by the academics remain under the strict protection of freedom of expression, even if it is not related to their fields of research, professional expertise or proficiency, or is controversial, or does not attract attention.”
The Constitutional Court ruled that each applicant be paid TL 9,000 in compensation; that the violation be eliminated and that a sample of the judgment be sent to the local courts for retrial.
15 academics reinstated; several passports returned
The Constitutional Court’s judgment came at the end of the second judicial year Academics for Peace spent in the courthouse. With the beginning of the next judicial year on 1 September 2019, trial courts began rendering acquittal rulings based on the Constitutional Court’s judgment. A total of 568 academics have been acquitted in trials across Turkey. While 500 of the acquittal decisions were rendered in ongoing trials, 68 acquittal decisions were the result of retrials after the Constitutional Court’s judgment.
Among the 204 academics who had been convicted, 136 cases are still pending retrial, i.e. whose files are still pending before a regional court of appeals or the Constitutional Court’s review. A total of 118 files are still pending trial in trial courts.
Only 15 of 406 academics who had been dismissed through statutory decrees for signing the petition were reinstated as per decisions by the State of Emergency Commission. Numerous other applications are still pending before the Commission. The passports of some of the academics have also been returned.
Lawyer Eyüboğlu: There are various cases at different stages
About the cases that have not yet been finalized, Meriç Eyüboğlu, one of the lawyers defending the Academics for Peace, said there were various cases in different legal stages.
Eyüboğlu explained: “There were trials in which decisions of non-jurisdiction were rendered because all prosecutions were commenced in Istanbul. A while after, the courts started to deliver decisions of non-jurisdiction to transfer the trials of the petition’s signatories from universities in other cities to criminal courts in the respective cities those academics reside. We appealed these decisions. Some of the courts in other cities also delivered decisions of non-jurisdiction: some did it upon our appeals and some did it on their own will. In cases like this, where there are two decisions of non-jurisdiction at stake, the Court of Cassation makes the final decision. Therefore, the Court of Cassation is still receiving appeals and some appeals are still pending before the high court. The 5th Criminal Chamber of the Court of Cassation will first decide on which court has jurisdiction. Then, that court will start the retrial. If all goes well, the proceedings will end with acquittals. And yet there are other proceedings where we see ‘the ritual of not finishing the proceedings,’ especially in courts outside of Istanbul. While concluding the trials with acquittals without a courtroom hearing is a common practice in Istanbul, where almost 500 trials have been concluded this way, courts in other cities insist on pursuing a ‘ritual’ in which they ‘must’ hold courtroom hearings, adjourn hearings to months later, and make the academics appear in the courtroom to give their statement in person.”
Noting that the academics and their lawyers have applied to the trial courts about the deferment of the announcement of verdicts, Eyüboğlu said that therefore, most of the individual applications pending before the Constitutional Court have already lost their importance: “Upon retrial requests, the courts examined the cases without a courtroom hearing and rendered acquittal verdicts. Therefore, the Constitutional Court applications by these academics have been nullified. The Constitutional Court will probably render its future judgments accordingly.”
Eyüboğlu added that there were also several case files overturned by regional courts of appeal: “Actually, regional courts of appeal could have rendered judgments that could finalize the proceedings. However, they are instead choosing to overturn the verdicts and send the case files back to the lower courts, which then have to issue new verdicts.”
In relation to academics who have been dismissed from universities for signing the petition, Eyüboğlu said that the State of Emergency Commission was not acting fast enough concerning the reinstatement of academics and the return of their passports whereas the Commission should have started these procedures immediately after the Constitutional Court’s judgment.
Eyüboğlu explained: “We had to submit to the Commission the Constitutional Court’s judgment and the acquittal verdicts and requested an immediate decision, whereas the Commission should have taken action on its own immediately after the Constitutional Court’s judgment. I am one of those who think that the main aim of this process was to get rid of the old academic cadre in universities and replace them with new personnel. For this reason, although the conclusion of criminal proceedings is not insignificant, it is a different category; dissident academics being replaced with others is another. So I do not see a strong possibility that the dismissed academics will all be reinstated in the short term. Although I do not find the Commission’s slowness strange, there is no doubt that the dismissals must be withdrawn immediately since the reason for the dismissal has been completely eliminated legally. And yet various other rights of these academics have also been violated; their passports have been confiscated, they have lost their employee benefits; there are academics who have lost their right to retirement, or those who cannot get their retirement bonus even though they have been retired; there are those who cannot go abroad because their passports have been canceled, and those who are unable to find another job in Turkey just because they signed a petition; there are those who live in poverty or others who have to work in jobs that have nothing to do with their field of expertise. Furthermore, there is the intense stress created by this whole process, oppression, uncertainty, and legal insecurity. Therefore, the problem will not be solved by merely reinstating the dismissed academics; if we are talking about lawfulness, all pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages that arose during the process must be compensated and all the consequences of the process must be eliminated. Even though there has been some progress on the passport issue, it is too slow. The examples we have seen so far show that not all academics will be able to get their passports back.
“As for the academics reinstated by the Commission so far, all 15 of them have withdrawn their signature from the petition. It is not clear whether these people withdrew their signatures before or after the trials. For example, those who withdrew their signatures from Istanbul University were tried in Istanbul, and the fact that they withdrew their signatures had no legal effect on their trials. But we also know about academics from other cities who withdrew their signatures and were never prosecuted. There is no ‘legal stability’ in this matter. Which shows us that we should not be expecting too positive results from the State of Emergency Commission process. I also think that this entails an implicit message to the academics telling them to withdraw their signatures — although at this stage, this would have legal or de facto meaning. Still, the government has from the very beginning been making such distinctions between the signatories: dismissed/not dismissed, public university/private university, signature withdrawn/not withdrawn, etc. It is still too early to make a generalization because we have not received any rejection from the Commission regarding an academic who has been dismissed and who has not withdrawn their signature. However, the Commission’s decisions seem likely to turn into yet another category for distinction among signatories in the near future.”
Beyond numbers: Academia at the Courthouse
Since 11 January 2016, the signatories of the Academics for Peace petition have been subjected to scapegoating, investigations, dismissals, forced resignations and trials.
But behind the numbers were real people, their lives and careers: some of them were excluded from scientific conventions even though their papers had already been accepted; some were denied appointment to posts or promotion; some of them had their ongoing projects canceled by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK); some were barred from participating in scientific conventions abroad by the administrators of the universities they worked at. For academics who signed the petition as PhD students and completed their graduate studies during the legal process, finding a job in any university in Turkey became literally impossible.
During the first six months of the process, some signatories were forced to leave Turkey, especially those who were dismissed or forced to resign from their posts. After the dismissals, restrictions were imposed on the passports of these academics and therefore, those who were abroad at that time did not return to Turkey since they would neither be able to go back nor work in Turkey, forcing many academics to live in exile.