Twenty-two Boğaziçi University students appear before court for first hearing of trial on “terrorism propaganda” charge

 

Twenty-two students from Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, indicted for staging a protest on campus late March against another group of Boğaziçi students distributing Turkish delights (lokums) to mark Turkey’s military operation on Syria’s Afrin, appeared before an Istanbul court on June 6 for the first hearing of their trial. The students are standing trial on the charge of “conducting propaganda for a terrorist organization.”

The court ruled to release all 14 students who were jailed pending trial as part of the case under judicial control measures at the end of the first hearing. The students had been in prison for 2.5 months.

The trial, overseen by the 32nd High Criminal Court of Istanbul, was monitored by P24, Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputies Sezgin Tanrıkulu, Zeynep Altıok, Ali Şeker, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Hüda Kaya and HDP candidates for the parliament Ahmet Şık, Oya Ersoy and Erkan Baş as well as journalists and representatives from various NGOs.

On March 19, a group of students had set a stand on the school campus to distribute sweets after the Turkish military entered the Syrian city of Afrin, which was under the control of a Kurdish group until then. Their act prompted the reaction of another group of students, who unfurled a banner reading “No lokum for massacres and occupation.” In their first defense statements to the court, students said the protest occurred spontaneously and all of the slogans chanted during the demonstration were peaceful. 

Slogans not propaganda but “political criticism”

Sevde Öztürk, one of the 14 jailed students, told the court that she was at the library when she heard noises outside and joined the group of demonstrators because of her curiosity. “Some of us who were disturbed by war and deaths chanted slogans. Even if they seem harsh, these were slogans that contained political criticism,” Öztürk said. “I don’t accept being stigmatized as a member of an organization for these slogans about peace. These slogans are not propaganda, but political criticism. I don’t accept by any means that I have conducted propaganda.”

The fact that students who had put up the stand didn’t seek any permission prompted the protest, said Enes Karakaş, another student who was in detention on remand. “Our basic intention was to state our political criticism and point out that those students’ ability to put up stands with no trouble while doing so without permission normally causes issues demonstrated a double standard,” Karakaş said.

Students denounce beating, threats and psychological pressure

Several students said they were subject to beatings, threats and psychological pressure by the police prior to being sent to jail by a court. Yusuf Noyan Öztürk, also a student who remained under pre-trial detention for 2.5 months, told the court that police forced him to give a testimony at the police station under duress and threats. Another student, İsmail Gürler, said he was beaten first in the police vehicle and then at the Central Police Department of Istanbul.

Students in custody demanded their release, expressing their wish to compensate the term they lost by taking classes during summer school starting on June 25. “I am doing a double major,” said Yusuf Noyan Öztürk. “I have a very intense schedule. I have already lost a term and this term is very important for me.” Chemistry student Esen Deniz Üstündağ also said pre-trial detention interfered with her education. “Two and a half months of detention made me lose two school years. I would like to resume my education as soon as possible.” Deniz Yılmaz, a student of mathematics, said he had submitted his work on probabilities to one of his teachers a day prior to his arrest. “Hadn’t I been arrested, we would have started working on an article based on my work. My detention has disrupted both my work and my education,” he said.

Lawyers: Protest under the protection of freedom of expression

Lawyers representing Boğaziçi students said the students had been accused of acts under the protection freedom of expression clauses according to European human rights law and Turkey’s Constitutional Court’s decisions. They also pointed out that slogans such as “shoulder to shoulder against fascism” or “no to war, peace right now” could not be considered as “propaganda” for a terrorist organization.

Metin Sezgin, who represents all the indicted students, said the prosecution failed to prove how the demonstration had been able to paint Turkey’s military operation as illegitimate in the eyes of the international community. “This is merely an act of criticism by students against individuals who put up a stand without a permission. The prosecution was disturbed by the content of the protest, which is, to say the least, an attempt to interpret their intention,” he said. Berke Aydoğan’s lawyer Levent Pişkin told the court that he was also doing his graduate studies at the Boğaziçi University. “Had I had a course that day, I would be probably sitting next to the defendants right now,” Pişkin said. “Boğaziçi is a university where everybody can express their opinions freely,” he added.

Lawyers took turns to demand the release and acquittal of their clients. The prosecutor gave his opinion following lawyers’ statements, demanding the release of only six of the 14 students under custody.

The court ruled to release all of the students in custody imposing judicial control measures and a travel ban. The court lifted the judicial control measures imposed on Kültigin Demirlioğlu, who was not in pre-trial detention. All the judicial control measures imposed on the remaining students were maintained. The trial was adjourned until October 3, 2018.

Sixteen of the protesting students were taken into custody during police raids on their homes and dorm rooms after they were branded as “communists, traitors and terrorist youth” by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nine of those students were jailed pending trial on April 3 on the charge of “spreading terrorist propaganda” while six students were released under judicial control terms. Five other students were arrested and jailed subsequently as part of the investigation.