Four academics freed from jail pending lesser charges

Four Turkish academics have been released from jail in Istanbul on the first day of their trial for spreading terrorist propaganda pending a reduction in the charges against them, according to Rudaw, the Kurdish media network.

Meral Camci, Kivanç Ersoy, Muzaffer Kaya and Esra Mungan were accused of engaging in terrorist propaganda and inciting hatred because they had signed a public petition criticising military operations against Kurdish rebels in civilian areas in the south-east of the country and urging Turkish authorities to renew dialogue with factions to build a lasting peace.

More than 1,400 academics from 89 universities in Turkey and internationally signed the petition, which also called on the Turkish government to stop the “deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish people” and declared: “We will not be a party to this crime.”

The petition, organised by Academics for Peace, criticised the use of heavy weaponry in operations in Kurdish-dominated towns.

In court the four defendants stood by their decision to sign the petition, Rudaw reported. “You may find our petition ridiculous, but you can never say we were spreading terrorist propaganda,” Kaya told the court. “Acquit me.”

The four released on 20 June are free pending a request from the prosecutors to the judge to change the charges to the lesser offence of denigrating Turkishness, which carries a maximum jail sentence of two years. The academics faced up to seven and a half years in jail under the more serious charges.

Before the trial the academics were held in a high security prison in Istanbul.

The Academics for Peace petition was a response to military operations against the PKK, which is designated a terrorist organisation by Europe and the US. The operations resumed in August 2015 and remain ongoing.

According to a report by the Human Rights Association in Turkey, between June and November, 602 people (including 41 children) were killed, 1,300 people were injured, 1,004 people were jailed and 5,713 people were taken into custody during the military operations in Kurdish towns. There were also 134 people killed and 564 injured in two suicide bombings in Suruç and Ankara.

An estimated 355,000 residents have been forced out of their homes by the fighting, Rudaw said.

According to Bianet, administrative investigations were launched into more than 500 academics following the petition.

The government has claimed that the petition accused the government of a “planned” massacre. It said the Turkish Council of Higher Education or YÖK began the investigations in response to the public outcry created by the petition “as well as alleged criminal offences including making ‘terrorist propaganda’”.

On 31 March Assistant Professor Meral Camci was subjected to a custody order for signing the petition. An academic at Yeni Yüzyil University, department of translation and interpreting, she was fired on 24 February, Bianet reported.

Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya and Kivanc Ersoy were initially detained after they held a news conference on 10 March and criticised the pressure those who signed the petition had faced, including dozens of dismissals from university posts, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile a professor at Bilgi University, Christoph K Neumann, has resigned in protest at the dismissal of his colleague, Professor Zeynep Sayin Balikcioglu, whom the university accused of “using expressions involving insults” against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Neumann, in his resignation letter, criticised the university for not protecting academic freedom.

Last month the government drafted a bill that included a ban on academics getting involved in political activity as part of a raft of measures to tighten the disciplinary system in universities, as reported by University World News.