Updated: Apr 2, 2019
Political scientist Füsun Üstel, a professor who retired from Galatasaray University in Istanbul, was among the first of 1,128 scholars to undergo trial for having signed the Academics for Peace Petition, a letter publicized in January 2016 that denounced the Turkish state's violation of the basic rights to life, liberty, and security of civilians in Kurdish cities. Üstel was also the first academic to refuse the legal provision the courts offer when prison sentences are less than two years. The provision (known in Turkish as the HAGB) involves suspending the pronouncement of judgment for a period of five years, during which the defendant is supposed to refrain from committing further “crimes.” Since what crime is in Turkey now depends on the arbitrary will of the political establishment, the provision aims to discipline defendants by placing them under supervision—that is, by hanging the sword of Damocles over their head. Writing a tweet might constitute a crime, as would close ties with civil society associations or newspapers critical of the government. On the other hand, the advantage the provision offers is that the suspect is to have no criminal record. While appeal is not allowed, applying to the Constitutional Court or to the European Court of Human Rights is still possible. Accepting the provision, however, has been considered by some academics as a tacit approval of the indictment. In her court hearing in April 2018, Üstel refused and was consequently sentenced to 15 months in prison. She appealed, but her appeal was turned down on March 1. She will therefore be the first academic to be imprisoned after the trials started in December 2017.
Nine other academics have refused the provision and are waiting to appear before the Court of Appeals. That, however, is not all. The Academics for Peace trials took an unexpected turn when a court sentenced Gencay Gürsoy to 27 months imprisonment in December 2018. Until then, most courts had pronounced prison sentences of 15 months. Some had even suspended the hearings in order to request permission from the Ministry of Justice to change the indictment. Instead of the AntiTerror Law’s Article 7/2 on terrorist propaganda charges, these courts demanded permission to judge the academics assigned to them according to Penal Code Article 301 on “Insulting the Turkish People, Republic of Turkey and Governmental Institutions and Bodies.”
Gürsoy’s trial was the first in which a prison sentence exceeding two years was pronounced. Gürsoy is a retired professor of medicine and former chair of the progressive Turkish Medical Association (TTB). He was also among the founders of the Human Rights Association (IHD) and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV). In addition to the usual charge, the court produced a number of tweets by Gürsoy, as well as an interview with him on an online news outlet, as supplementary evidence of his “support for an armed terrorist group.” In the interview, Gürsoy pointed out the resemblance between collective trials and concentration camp techniques. Gürsoy’s lawyer was not informed of the extra documents added to her client’s file. The court rejected her objections and made no reduction in the prison sentence on grounds that Gürsoy “did not show any sign of remorse.” The same court and others followed suit, starting to hand out various prison sentences that no longer fit the 15 months pattern previously observed. From December 2018 on, four academics have received 18 months, 30 academics were sentenced to between 22-27 months, two received 30 months, and one academic, who is particularly active in the solidarity work at the Academic for Peace trials in Istanbul, was sentenced to 36 months of prison. All of those found “more guilty” than others are appealing.
As these examples show, the Turkish courts are now delivering individually differentiated prison sentences for the very same act: signing the Peace Petition.
Of the 1,128 signatories of the petition, almost 600 are currently undergoing trials on grounds of engagement in “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” There are no signs that the establishment will ease its grip on the judiciary, nor is there anything that warrants hope concerning a return to rule of law or common sense. The upcoming local elections on March 31 are to secure the ruling AKP’s hegemonic political position, since the next electoral cycle does not begin until 2023. With its designs on Syria dashed and the economy on the verge of collapse, it is not improbable that the government will seek to thwart critique and dissidence by increasing the dose of repression, unless international pressure can be exerted. Pressure from the international community does make an impact, as was seen with the case of the four academics who spent a month in prison for having read a press release defending the petition in 2016.