Cases against Academics for Peace have become emblematic of the attacks on freedom of expression in Turkey
Written by: Sophia Paley
On 26 July 2019, Turkey’s highest court brought new hope to Turkish academics when it ruled that ten educators who had signed the petition “We will not be a Party to This Crime!” (Bu Suça Ortak Olmayacağız) had been tried unfairly and in violation of their rights.
The petition, created by the Kurdish rights group Academics for Peace, called on the Turkish government to “prepare the conditions for negotiations and create a road map that would lead to a lasting peace which includes the demands of the Kurdish political movement”. It was signed by over two thousand academics, all of whom were then individually charged with “conducting propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. The news that the resulting trials might violate the signatories rights sparked a firestorm of controversy in Turkey, where academia is tightly controlled and public discussion of the trials has been constrained.
Noémi Lévy-Aksu is an historian of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey and an aspiring lawyer. She has French and Turkish citizenship and was working as an assistant professor at Boğaziçi University until 2017, when she was dismissed for signing the Academics for Peace petition, an experience about which she previously spoke to Index in 2018. Lévy-Aksu is currently a teaching fellow at the London School of Economics and she is involved in human rights advocacy and volunteer legal work. She still speaks out about her experience and she spoke with Index’s Sophia Paley about the latest developments in the challenges facing Turkish academics and their students.
Index: Thousands of academics have been dismissed for political reasons since the coup in 2016, most of them were not signatories of the Academics for Peace petition. Why do you think the Academics for Peace cases have gotten so much more international attention than these other cases?
Noémi Lévy-Aksu: The case of the Academics for Peace has become emblematic of the attacks on academic freedom and freedom of expression in today’s Turkey. The sole ground on which academics have been threatened, dismissed and prosecuted is their endorsement of a declaration demanding the end of state violence against civilians and the resumption of the peace process. In this respect, it is one of the multiple cases of criminalisation of critical thought and expression, which target journalists, political actors, human rights defenders as well. The degree of international attention is also due to the efforts of the Academics for Peace themselves, who have established solidarity networks in Turkey and abroad to support the signatories and raise awareness about their cases among academics, human rights defenders and policy-makers.
Index: What do you think will happen to the petition signatories who have already been sentenced, including those who legally forfeited their right to an appeal?
Lévy-Aksu: Turkey’s constitutional court has ruled that the conviction of the signatories of the Academics for Peace declaration was a violation of their rights and considered that the declaration was within the scope of academic freedom. The court also ordered that a copy of the decision be sent to the lower courts involved in the process. Accordingly, those still under prosecution should be acquitted, re-trials should be held for the ones who have received a final sentence and the regional courts of appeal should reverse the conviction for the cases that are pending on appeal.
Index: Do you think that the high court’s verdict represents a genuine turning point for academic freedom in Turkey, or is that a false hope? What is the verdict’s significance?
Lévy-Aksu: The decision of the constitutional court is an important landmark, following a few other positive decisions acknowledging the wide scope of freedom of expression in international law and Turkish legislation. In this respect, it brings hope not only to academics, but also to all those who are currently prosecuted for their opinions and statements in Turkey, as well as to the national and national human rights defenders. However, the decision was adopted with a one-vote majority and triggered harsh criticism in the pro-governmental media. Legally, the decisions of the constitutional court are binding on inferior courts, but in the last few years some inferior court judges have proved reluctant to apply those decisions, so the next few months will be crucial to evaluate the legal impact of this judgment.
Finally, one should not forget that the criminal prosecution of the Academics for Peace is just one aspect of the multiple attacks against academic freedom in today’s Turkey. Arbitrary dismissals and obstacles to critical research remain burning issues, which cannot be solved without a strong political will.
Index: According to pro-state media, 1,071 academics have signed a manifesto condemning the high court’s verdict. Why do you think they would do such a thing? Do they truly believe their fellow academics are promoting terrorism? What is their motivation?
Lévy-Aksu: The “1071” declaration was initiated by a few university rectors, who did not hesitate to stand against the highest court of the country to show their loyalty to the political power. The number “1071” was chosen as a reference the Malazgirt battle in 1071, but it soon appeared that the list was not accurate: some signatories appeared twice, while a few declared that their names had been included without their consent. One lecturer from Istanbul Aydın University even resigned to protest against her name being used without her consent. As for the more than a thousand academics who chose to endorse such a declaration, some are active supporters to the government, while others probably feared sanctions if they answered negatively to their rectors’ requests. In any case, this declaration gives an idea of the atmosphere in these universities, where administrations are completely beholden to political power and the academic staff have little choice but active or passive consent.
Index: How familiar is the Turkish public with the government’s tightening restrictions on academic freedom? What do you believe is their reaction?
Lévy-Aksu: Turkey’s public sphere is so divided that it is impossible to talk about the “Turkish public”. The case of the Academics for Peace petition has received attention both in pro-governmental and in independent media, from very different perspectives. In the pro-governmental discourse, purges in academia are presented as part of the fight against terror and its supporters, either Gulenists or pro-Kurdish. In that view, state security and the interests of the nation are involved, so academic freedom is not important. On the other hand, restrictions on academic freedom are increasingly criticised in the public sphere, as part of the broader violations of human rights and freedoms in Turkey, but also because of their negative impact on the quality of teaching and research in the Turkish academia.
Index: Speaking of the quality of Turkish higher education, how do solidarity academies differ from other private educational institutions, and what is their role in providing space for open inquiry and critical thought?
Lévy-Aksu: Solidarity academies are alternative structures created by academics who believe that new spaces are needed to resist attacks against academic freedom and critical thought. Many of them, though not all, are signatories to the Academics for Peace petition who were dismissed from their academic positions. Solidarity academies started as local, informal initiatives in various cities of Turkey, such as Eskişehir, Kocaeli, Dersim, Mersin, Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul. Several have now become more organised and obtained a legal status as associations. Contrary to private educational institutions, they are non-profit organisations and they aim to develop innovative approaches to research and teaching, with special emphasis on freedom and critical thinking. While they do not seek to reproduce the conventional academic system, these academies have connections with international research networks and scholars and they make an important contribution to knowledge production in Turkey. As an increasing number of countries witness attacks on academic freedom, such initiatives are vital to develop transnational networks of solidarity and support academics and students affected by these developments.
Index: The Turkish government is increasingly relying on anti-terrorism legislation to attack its political enemies. Why was this specific justification chosen, and how does it change the legal process?
Lévy-Aksu: Using anti-terror legislation to attack political enemies is a strategy that has been used by the Turkish successive governments for decades. As in other countries, anti-terrorism legislation enables the state to limit the rights of the suspects, as illustrated by the anti-terror law adopted after the state of emergency was lifted in July 2018. Inter alia, it allows longer custody periods and defenders and lawyers can be prevented from accessing the case file. Beyond these legal aspects, labelling critical voices as terrorist is a political strategy that aims to shape public opinion and increase support of the government. It presents the prosecution and imprisonment of opponents as legitimate and necessary for the interests of the nation.
Index: The Turkish Constitution includes provisions forbidding “[u]niversities, members of the teaching staff and their assistants” from engaging “in activities directed against the existence and independence of the State, and against the integrity and indivisibility of the Nation and the Country”. This unity of the nation includes linguistic and cultural unity, as shown in the mandate that “No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education”. Do these guarantees of a unitary ethnostate for Turks influence how the Academics for Peace petition signatories and others were treated?
Lévy-Aksu: This question raises several important issues which it is impossible to fully answer here. The first issue is related to the tension between academic freedom and national security. This is not specific to Turkey (see for instance the much debated Prevent legislation in the UK), but since the beginning of the republic, regardless of the political orientation of the government (and with a few exceptions), the state’s approach to academic freedom has been particularly restrictive in Turkey.
The second issue has to do with Turkish nationalism and its negative perception of cultural and linguistic diversity, which has constituted an important aspect of the Kurdish issue in the last decades. Education in their mother tongue is a recurrent demand of the Kurdish rights movement. While the government seemed willing to develop a more conciliatory approach to the question during the peace negotiations, since the process collapsed, a rigid version of Turkish nationalism has been on the rise again. As an urgent call to stop state violence against civilians, the declaration of the Academics for Peace was not directly related to the question of cultural rights, but it emphasised the need for a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has lasted for decades. The attacks against the signatories illustrate how, under the current government, human rights and democratic values are treated as subversive when they are used to articulate a critique of the state. Meanwhile, countless citizens have been imprisoned or prosecuted for their political and cultural activities on behalf of Kurdish rights and democracy.
Index: Some observers emphasise the worsening situation for academics after the failed coup of 2016. Do you agree that 2016 was the turning point, or if not, when did these problems begin?
Lévy-Aksu: Attacks on academic freedom did not start with the failed coup of 2016, nor actually with the AKP government. With respect to the Academics for Peace signatories, the repression started right after the petition was released in January 2016. The signatories were immediately the targets of hate speech, the first dismissals occurred, and four signatories were imprisoned. However, after a state of emergency was proclaimed in July 2016, the process dramatically accelerated and the purges targeting Gulenists, the Academics for Peace signatories and other opponents became massive in higher education, as in other sectors. The civil servants dismissed by the emergency decrees did not only lose their jobs: their passports were revoked, and they received a life-long ban on public service. In addition, they continue to face informal practices of black listing and discrimination. This process has been described as “civil death” by some signatories and continue to have dramatic moral and material consequences.
Index: Are you worried or hopeful for the future of Turkey’s education system, and why?
Lévy-Aksu: The current situation of Turkey’s education system is extremely worrying. Successive reforms implemented in primary and secondary education have further disorganised the system, and all levels of education have experienced purges. Higher education has been decimated by these purges. Even though not all critical academics have been dismissed, the space for academic freedom has dramatically shrunk in all universities and many choose self-censorship to avoid possible sanctions. Both the Turkish Higher Education Council and the Scientific and Technological Research Council (TUBITAK) have been discredited by their prominent role in the dismissal and marginalisation of critical scholars. The students are the main victims of this process, both because they have lost many dedicated and inspiring teachers, but also because they are themselves targeted by repression, both at the disciplinary and criminal levels. There are tens of thousands students imprisoned today in Turkey.
Yet, the resilience of civil society in Turkey is remarkable, and international solidarity has enabled a number of critical scholars to continue their research away from Turkish academia. It is my hope that the experience academics have gained of alternative structures such as the solidarity academies and the international networks developed during these years will contribute to transforming the education system for the better when there is a political opening.