(Istanbul) – In the latest attack on free speech in Turkey, three academics who signed a peace petition in January 2016 have been jailed by an Istanbul court on suspicion of “making terrorist propaganda.” The three were jailed on March 15, 2016, pending the completion of a criminal investigation.
At least 30 other academics have been dismissed and 27 suspended by their universities pending investigation. The Istanbul prosecutor responsible for terrorism crimes is conducting a criminal investigation into all the academics who signed the petition and many local investigations are taking place.
“President Erdogan’s vicious campaign against the academics is part of his drive to banish, punish, and silence all critical voices in Turkey,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey’s universities, prosecutors, and courts should respect and protect free speech and the rule of law by immediately dropping all investigations and punitive measures against all those who signed the declaration.”
The petition at issue, initially signed by 1,128 academics calling themselves Academics for Peace and then by more than 1,000 others, declared “We will not be party to this crime.” They condemned the Turkish government’s security operations against the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) youth movement in cities of southeast Turkey because of the disastrous impact on the Kurdish civilian population. Made public at an Istanbul news conference on January 11, the petition also called for a resumption of peace talks with the PKK.
In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unleashed a harsh campaign vilifying the academics in at least five speeches – terming them vile, equal to terrorists, base and dark – and demanding sanctions against them. Human Rights Watch spoke to 12 petition signatories about the criminal and disciplinary investigations against them, the threats they received, and their suspensions and dismissals.
The three academics placed in pretrial detention today are Muzaffer Kaya, Esra Mungan and Kıvanç Ersoy. Ersoy teaches in the mathematics department at Mimar Sinan University and Mungan in the psychology department at Boğaziçi University. Kaya was recently dismissed from the social work department at Nişantaşı University for signing the petition. They were detained and then jailed by a court a day after Erdoğan called for the crime of terrorism to be widened to include expression which he judges “serves the aims of terrorists,” and which would target professions such as journalists, politicians and activists. His remarks came after the March 13 bombing which killed 37 people in Ankara’s city center.
“The three jailed academics have committed no crime and should be immediately released,” said Sinclair-Webb. “Imprisoning advocates for peace who have criticized government policy not only flouts international standards, but will do nothing to prevent terrorism or bring justice for the victims of the Ankara bombing.”
Universities should also promptly reinstate the academics who have been dismissed or suspended pending investigation, and prosecutors should ensure that the courts promptly lift overseas travel bans they have imposed on six of the signatories, Human Rights Watch said.
Over the past two months, police have detained around 15 academics for short periods and in some cases searched academics’ homes and offices. An Istanbul prosecutor is conducting a criminal investigation into all signatories on suspicion that they “made terrorism propaganda” and “insulted the Turkish nation or state institutions,” and there are many ongoing investigations opened by prosecutors throughout the country. The Council of Higher Education, which oversees Turkey’s higher education system, pushed universities to investigate those who signed the petition.
The legal basis for suspending academics is not clear in university regulations, and universities have in many cases not provided grounds for the suspensions and dismissals. All the academics Human Rights Watch spoke to described being questioned by prosecutors about their political views, a line of inquiry completely unrelated to exercising their legitimate right to free speech by signing the petition.
Among those Human Rights Watch interviewed are:
- Latife Akyüz: On January 13, Düzce University in northwest Turkey suspended Akyüz, an assistant professor of sociology, a day after President Erdoğan’s first speech. Akyüz learnt from the university website that the university had suspended her and was not sent a formal notification until a month later. On January 14, police searched her home and office at the university and took copies of her computer hard drive and other belongings. After she testified before the Düzce public prosecutor on January 16, a court imposed a travel ban on her, which was upheld on appeal. Following threats on social media and a report about her in the local media, Akyüz left Düzce. She told Human Rights Watch: “My friends cleared and emptied my home in Düzce. It’s no longer possible for me to live in that house or city.”
- Sharo Garip: On January 15, police from the Anti-Terror Branch detained Garip, associate professor of sociology at Van 100 Yil University, in eastern Turkey, and held him overnight in a police cell. On January 16, he testified before the Van prosecutor, who had him taken before a judge to seek an overseas travel ban pending completion of a criminal investigation. The court released Garip, a German national, and did not impose a travel ban. However, the prosecutor appealed and Garip learned on February 13 that a ban had been imposed. The university employed Garip on an annual contract that was due for renewal on December 31, 2015. On January 25, the university informed him, without providing a reason, that his contract was not being renewed. He is now unemployed and cannot return to Germany because of the travel ban.
- Among the others who signed at Van 100 Yıl University, Eylem Kılıç, associate professor in the education faculty; Sebahattin Şen, researcher in the radio and television branch of the fine arts faculty; and Turan Keskin, researcher in the economics department, were also informed in February that they were banned by a court from overseas travel pending the completion of the ongoing criminal investigations against them.
- Ramazan Kurt: Erzurum Atatürk University in eastern Turkey suspended Kurt, a researcher in the Faculty of Social Studies in the second year of a philosophy doctorate, for signing the petition. He told Human Rights Watch that on January 13 he received threats, including by telephone, visits to his office, a social media campaign against him, and a protest by a far-right group and students. He complained to the prosecutor and requested police protection, but the police said they could not provide protection and he could call them if anything happened to him. He went with this lawyer to the police, after hearing they were seeking to detain him, and then testified before the prosecutor, who asked the court to jail him pending completion of a criminal investigation. The court released him but imposed an overseas travel ban.
- Eda Erdener: an associate professor in the Psychology Department of the Arts and Science at Bingöl University in eastern Turkey, Erdener said that in response to signing the petition Bingöl University has subjected her to three investigations. She testified before the public prosecutor in January and, like others questioned by prosecutors, was repeatedly asked questions about her political views and motivation for signing the petition.
- Nil Mutluer: assistant professor and head of the sociology department at Nişantaşı University, Istanbul, Mutluer was fired on February 8, along with five other academics at the university - Çetin Gürer, Dilşa Deniz, Melih Kırlıdoğ, Muzaffer Kaya, Selim Eyüboğlu. The decision to terminate their contracts was made unilaterally by the Board of Trustees, whose chairman had previously publicly told the academics to resign for signing the petition. The pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Akit singled out a small group of academics in various universities, including Mutluer, for a front-page lead article including their photos and names, and falsely accused them of being members of a terrorist organization.