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Turkey: ‘Terrorist’ Academics On Trial For Peace Declaration

Hundreds charged with terrorist activities for signing pro-peace petition

ISTANBUL – The first hearings have been held for 148 Turkish academics charged with terrorist propaganda after signing a peace declaration.

The first of the hearings for the academics, who are each being tried individually, were held last week with more set to be held regularly until May. They each face up to 7.5 years in prison if convicted.

The peace petition, named ‘We won’t be a part of this crime,’ was announced publicly on January 11, 2016 and initially signed by 1,128 academics. More than 1,000 others subsequently signed on from Turkey and abroad, including American linguist Noam Chomsky and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

The petition condemns the Turkish government for what it calls a “deliberate and planned massacre” and calls for a resumption of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Since a ceasefire was broken in July 2015, over 3,300 people have been killed in fighting between the state and the PKK, including some 400 civilians. Over half a million people in the mostly Kurdish southeast have been forced to flee from their flattened homes.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented numerous rights violations by both sides and accused Ankara of collective punishment against the Kurdish population.

Nearly 500 of the petition signatories have been sacked and most have also been barred from public service and had their passports cancelled.

Yaman Akdeniz, a professor at Bilgi University’s Human Rights Law Research Center, says the government’s actions must be subject to public oversight. “This includes the leveling of harsh criticism against the government and its organs within the scope of freedom of political expression,” Akdeniz wrote in an email to The Media Line. “This is exactly what was done by the signatories of the declaration.

“You may not like what the [peace petition] says or believe it could have been said otherwise,” he continued, “but there is no polite way of exposing the negative aspects of the government’s anti-terrorism policies and practices and harshly criticizing the dismal situation in southeast Turkey.”

Turkish academia has been devastated not only by the dismissals and charges against the peace petition signatories, but also by the sacking of nearly 5,000 academics in a series of executive decrees since the failed coup in July 2016. This is part and parcel of a massive, ongoing purge of government opponents, which includes around 60,000 arrested and 150,000 fired or blacklisted.

A presidential decree on October 29, 2016 also ruled that state university rectors must now appointed directly by the president, instead of decided through faculty elections.

“We are increasingly concerned by the growing number of academics in Turkey who have had their careers crushed, been barred from leaving the country, and are facing prison sentences—all for speaking out for peace,” Daniel Munier, acting director for advocacy at Scholars at Risk, wrote in an email to The Media Line. “Under President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, asking questions and sharing ideas—a scholar’s duties—have become criminal offenses, punishable under Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws.”

Esra Mungan is a psychology professor at Bosphorus University who was imprisoned for a month after signing the petition and reading it publicly. She says Turkey is now suffering from brain-drain and that the government’s policies prevent universities from fulfilling their proper function.

“Universities have to be free. You can’t do science if there’s no freedom of thought, no freedom of expression, no freedom of research,” she told The Media Line.

Hülya Dinçer, dismissed from Marmara University’s Faculty of Law, said she sympathizes with her former students, but felt it was her obligation as a scholar to sign the petition. “It was my responsibility not only as an academic, but as a human being living in this country, to be a [vocal] witness to all these gross human rights violations against Kurdish people. For me it was a duty to sign,” she explained to The Media Line.

The Media Line spoke to other signatories in Eskişehir, a university town in northeast Turkey, twenty-one of whom were dismissed, primarily from Anadolu University.

The academics now support themselves with a small amount of money disbursed by the Eğitim Sen teachers’ union, while some do private tutoring or translation work. All of them said the psychological effects of being purged, along with the resulting social stigma, are worse than the financial hardships.

“The psychological situation, the moral effects, these are the worst parts,” Kasım Akbaş, who taught sociology and the philosophy of law before being dismissed, told The Media Line. “Losing your job, even if you have money in your pocket, [makes] you feel useless. Also your family, your friends, you feel like they have pity for you.… When I introduce myself, I say ‘My name is Kasım,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”

Akbaş described having lengthy, awkward conversations about his situation every time he meets someone.  “What can you say? ‘Well I was a lawyer, but now I’m not.’ It’s like a confession,” he elaborated.

The families of the academics who signed the petition often have difficulty understanding why their loved ones would risk so much for what they believe in, with children being particularly effected by the ramifications.

“Some of our friends had to change their children’s schools,” revealed dismissed law professor Kıvılcım Turanlı.

Last February, research assistant Mehmet Fatih Traş committed suicide after being discharged from Çukurova University for signing the petition.

“It was really depressing for all of us because we couldn’t do anything,” said Zeynep Emeksiz, herself a dismissed professor of literature. “We weren’t there. He was so alone.”

After Traş’s suicide, the Eskişehir signatories started teaching classes in his name at a bookstore café, with topics ranging from gender to poetry to art.

“The point is to get the people of Eskişehir to understand that we’re here [and] we’re not terrorists,” Emeksiz stressed.

Other “solidarity academies” have been set up by dismissed scholars across Turkey, which has led to further indictments against the academics including the charge of “inciting revolt” through these projects.

Like most of the fired academics, Emeksiz’s passport was cancelled, which was particularly devastating given he had won a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation scholarship in Germany.

“I cannot leave the country, it as if I am a criminal,” she said.

The academics say that many people they meet cannot believe they were fired simply for signing a peace petition, and think they must have done something illegal. “The first thing they say is, ‘but you seem like a good person,’” Hatice Yeşildal, a dismissed sociology professor, told The Media Line.

“People in my neighborhood ask if I was dismissed because of FETÖ or the PKK. ‘Which kind of terrorist are you?’” added Meral Gürbüz, a dismissed law professor who now owns a café.

FETÖ is the acronym the Turkish government uses for followers of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based cleric and Erdogan foe which Ankara blames for the failed coup. The first purges targeted Gülen’s followers, but they soon expanded to include those who have no connections to his global movement.

Erdoğan has labelled the academics “enemies of the state” and terrorists, while urging the judiciary to take action. The pro-government media also targeted them and published their names.

Pro-government gang leader Sedat Peker threatened the academics, saying “we will shower in your blood.” In Eskişehir, a mannequin was hanged over a highway next to a banner reading “Death penalty for the PKK academics.”

“When we search our names in Google, the first thing we find is ‘PKK terrorist,’” Yeşildal said.

Despite the hardships, none of the academics The Media Line spoke to expressed regrets about signing the petition. “The government wants us to be unseen. I always [tell people] I’ve been fired with an [executive decree] and I’m proud of it. At this time, to not be fired is a thing to be ashamed of,” asserted molecular biologist Duygu Abbasoğlu.

“[The petition] was a voice from the academy, from an academy that’s usually silent,” Akbaş said.

Emeksiz says none of the academics from Eskişehir have thus far been charged, but fears they are still coming.

“We are waiting for our turn.”