Turkish academics protest court decision to protect colleagues’ rights

Pro-government academics in Turkey have railed against the country’s highest legal body for ruling that a high-profile case targeting more than 2,000 of their colleagues for signing a peace petition had violated their freedom of expression.

The Constitutional Court decided by nine votes to eight on Friday to accept the appeal of a group of the “Academics for Peace” platform who were sentenced on terrorism propaganda charges for signing the January 2016 petition. The decision is expected to set a legal precedent on freedom of expression cases.

The petition entitled “We will not be party to this crime” condemned the Turkish military’s heavy-handed response to insurgents in urban centres in the predominantly Kurdish southeast after a peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down in 2015.

The military imposed long curfews and used heavy weapons in towns and neighbourhoods throughout the region after insurgents linked to the PKK fortified and declared autonomy in many areas.

Government supporters were quick to condemn the court’s decision as a gift to the PKK, which has fought the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy since 1984. 

On Monday, 1,071 academics added their own note of protest, calling the decision a scandal that sought to disrupt Turkey’s anti-terrorism operations and sullied the memory of soldiers slain in the conflict.

The signatories included Burhan Kuzu, an academic and chief adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who told Sabah newspaper that the Academics for Peace had produced black propaganda against the Turkish state.

The Academics for Peace had failed to condemn the PKK’s actions in the petition, Yeni Yüzyıl University rector Yaşar Hacısalihoğlu, another of the signatories, told the newspaper.

The number of academics to sign this week’s petition, social media users noted, was carefully chosen. It was in the year 1071 that the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert, in today’s Malazgırt in eastern Anatolia, securing a Turkish foothold in Anatolia and paving the way for the later Ottoman Empire.

Yet that number appears to be inaccurate, as BBC Turkish’s report on the petition noted. Istanbul University academic Şerif Eskin, whose name was listed among the 1,071 academics, posted a statement on his Twitter account saying that he had not signed or been informed of the petition.

“My name and signature has been used without my consent. This is shameful,” Eskin said.

“This signature list has been reprinted in countless places. Where am I supposed to go to correct this now? How is it that my signature has been used without anyone asking me?” he said in another tweet.