State attorney seeks life sentence for leading scholar

A prominent academic who has been detained for more than eight months will appear in court on Monday facing charges related to the failed coup attempt last July. He says the state attorney has asked for a life sentence penalty and he fears for his life if the death penalty is re-legalised.

On 6 April University World News received a third letter from Sedat Laçiner, a former university rector and former adviser to the Council of Higher Education or YÖK, who is being held in a Turkish prison (Canakkale), saying the indictment against him was accepted in March, eight months after he was detained.

“I have been in a Turkish prison since 20 July 2016 and I have no idea when I could be free,” he wrote.

An author, journalist and scholar with particular focus on Turkish foreign policy and the Middle East, Laciner has a masters degree from Sheffield University, United Kingdom, and a doctorate from King’s College London, and has authored 26 books and numerous articles on international security and the fight against terrorism in Turkey.

“After eight months there is still no single legal evidence for the accusation, namely attempting to remove the Erdogan government. The indictment even accepts that I have no violent or forceful action, behaviour or activity.

“Although there is no single proof for the accusation, the state attorney asks a life sentence penalty for me,” he wrote in his letter sent to University World News.

Criticism of government

Laciner said unfortunately he is only one among 120,000 civil servants, judges, lawyers, academics and teachers fired without legal process and only one of about 50,000 being held in prison, including academics, journalists and judges.

“For the judges who are left in charge, anyone criticising the government is guilty of treachery and terrorism,” he said.

His only “crime” was to criticise the government and its failure to respect the Constitution and to demand that it not abuse human rights, he said.

“I worry about my life and my family's life because the president and prime minister declared that the death penalty will be re-legalised soon in Turkey.”

He said he was arrested by Turkish police after the 15 July 2016 coup attempt “without any proof, like many journalists and academics”.

“My file was kept secret and nobody gave any information about my so-called crime for months.”

According to Laciner’s family, he and his brother, Vedat, also an academic, will appear in court on Monday.

Support from Chomsky

Last month the American linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky added his voice to growing international calls for his release. Chomsky, emeritus professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag encouraging them to abide by the constitution of Turkey and international law.

Sedat Laçiner first wrote to University World News from prison in November, reporting that he had been held since July.

The government has blamed supporters of the reportedly moderate Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for the coup attempt, in which 240 people died and which drew civilian protests against the threat to democracy onto the streets.

Laçiner, a former rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, near Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, said: “My only fault is my opinions. I opposed the Syrian and the Kurdish policies of the [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan rule. I’ve also strongly criticised the government’s authoritarian and Islamist policies.”

Laçiner’s brother, Dr Vedat Laçiner, an assistant professor at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, who was also arrested on 23 July and is being held in the same prison, will also appear in court on Monday, his family says. He has a PhD in law from the University of Passau, Germany.

The family says neither Sedat or Vedat has had any connection with any terrorist group or organisation, nor any connection with the Gülen movement, which is a conservative Islamist-leaning movement.

Neither has used the ByLock app, a mobile phone app, a criteria commonly used for suspecting someone of being a Gülenist, the family member said.

Pattern of infringement

The case of another prominent academic was highlighted by the Scholars at Risk network recently, because 30 March marked the 100th day of imprisonment of Professor Istar Gozaydin, former chair of the department of sociology at Turkey’s Gediz University. Dr Gozaydin is a prominent observer of government policy and of the state’s religious affairs directorate, Diyanet.

Scholars at Risk, or SAR, said her lengthy detention and the charges filed against her on 17 March reflect an extreme case in a developing pattern of infringement of freedom in Turkey.

A founder of Turkey’s branch of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in the 1990’s, Dr Gozaydin has long pursued research and action within the public sphere. She was suspended from her academic duties at Gediz University for re-tweeting an admonition against the death penalty several days after the coup attempt failed in Turkey on 15-16 July 2016, SAR reported.

Just one week following the coup attempt, the university was shuttered by Turkey’s Council of Higher Education. According to Clare Robinson, advocacy director of the Scholars at Risk network, Gozaydin is one among 5,913 personnel recently dismissed from the higher education system by government order.

Robinson believes that “these closures and dismissals are only the beginning. Scholars at Risk has verified at least 607 detentions of, or warrants issued for, higher education personnel and at least 148 prosecutions of scholars, students and other higher education personnel.”

Gozaydin is charged with membership of the Gülen movement.

Supposed evidence

The supposed evidence for Gozaydin’s membership includes her notes and scholarly writing, according to SAR.

Gozaydin first turned her attention to Diyanet, the state’s religious affairs directorate, in her graduate work at Istanbul University. Her first book-length scholarly study of the directorate appeared in 1993, many years before the ruling Justice and Development Party severed its alliance with that movement.

Karabekir Akkoyunlu, assistant professor of modern Turkey and Southeast Europe at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, has warned that the government is trying to “retrospectively criminalise academic research and activities on issues that were only a couple of years ago being openly and extensively debated in the public sphere”.

He cited Gozaydin’s case as a prominent example of a developing trend: “Scholars who have conducted research about the relationship between religion, business and politics in Turkey, and have established contacts with Gülen supporters and business affiliates in the process, now risk being labelled as coup supporters.”