U.S. scholars urge Turkish judges to protect academic freedom

More than two dozen leading U.S. academic groups issued a letter on Wednesday calling on the judges of Turkey’s top court to show their commitment to the rule of law and protect free speech in their rulings this week on scholars charged for signing a peace petition. 

Some 2,200 Turkish academics have signed a 2016 petition criticising the heavy-handed tactics of the Turkish army in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. As of January, more than 450 of the signatories, widely known as the Academics for Peace, had stood trial over charges of terror propaganda.

On Monday, retired academic Fusün Üstel, the first to be sent to jail, was released from prison after serving two months of a 15-month sentence. Her release followed an April decision by the Constitutional Court to review the appeals of 10 academics, including Üstel's, on July 26.

“We urge you to demonstrate your commitment to the rule of law and the international agreements of which Turkey is a signatory and which protect the freedom of expression and assembly and academic freedom as you consider the cases of the Peace Petition signatories on 26 July,” said the letter signed by groups representing thousands of U.S. academics. 

The scholars, from the American Academy of Religion, the American Anthropological Association, the American Political Science Association, the Association for Asian Studies, the Middle East Studies Association, the Organisation of American Historians, and many other groups, said they were heartened by the judges’ recent decisions, including rulings in the cases of Ayşe Çelik and Deniz Yücel.

Çelik, a Turkish teacher sentenced on terrorism charges for phoning in to a popular television show to protest children dying in southeast Turkey, was released from prison in May, two weeks after her sentence began.

Yücel, a former Turkey correspondent for the German daily Die Welt, spent a year in prison in Turkey after being detained on terrorism and propaganda charges, and was released in Feb 2018. 

Under the two-year emergency rule declared following a coup attempt in 2016, hundreds of peace petitioners have lost their jobs with no prospect of working again in Turkey. Many have been subject to travel bans and had their passports revoked.

Last week, the first Turkish-American academic charged in the Peace Petition case, University of California-Davis historian Baki Tezcan, went on trial in Istanbul. “What keeps the Declaration for Peace in the news is not the declaration but the reaction to it in Turkey,” he said in his statement to the court.