Turkish Constitutional Court rules that the convictions of Academics for Peace violate their rights
by Nóemi Lévy-Aksu
Teaching Fellow, LSE Department of International Relations
July 26th was a landmark in a case that has become one of the symbols of the crackdown on democracy in Turkey: the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that the conviction of Academics for Peace was a violation of their freedom of expression. Since their Declaration “We will not be a party to this crime” was released in January 2016, the Academics for Peace have been subjected to multiple violations of their rights: hate speech, dismissal from their academic positions, travel ban, ban on public sector employment, prosecution and even imprisonment. The criminal case opened in late 2017 led to the trial of more than 700 hundred academics, prosecuted on charges of “propagandising for a terrorist organisation”. Professor Zübeyde Füsun Üstel was imprisoned on 8 May 2019 after the Istanbul Court of Appeal upheld her conviction and released only a few days before the decision of the Constitutional Court. Dr. Tuna Altınel, an Academic for Peace associate professor in Mathematics at Lyon University, who had been jailed on the ground of his participation in the legal meeting of a Kurdish association in Lyon, was also released on July 30th, but he remained subject to a travel ban until his next hearing in November.
The decision of the Constitutional Court was welcomed with relief and joy not only by the Academics for Peace, but also all of those who fight for freedom of expression and academic freedom, in Turkey and beyond. While academics were prosecuted on an individual basis, the case has become a model of collective mobilisation and solidarity. This would not have been possible without the coordinated efforts of many: the academics’ lawyers, who relentlessly demonstrated the inconsistence of the indictment and explored all possible legal avenues, often on a pro bono basis; the Academics for Peace themselves, particularly the volunteers of the trial coordination group, who put immense efforts into organising daily trial monitoring and weekly press releases throughout this period; and academics and human rights defenders throughout the world, who strongly denounced this blatant attack on freedom of expression and academic freedom, and showed solidarity to academics prosecuted and in exile. While freedom of expression and human rights remain under threat in Turkey, it is to hope that the Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence will benefit to the countless journalists, students, politicians and civil society actors currently prosecuted or imprisoned for their critical opinions.
If these recent developments undeniably constitute good news for freedom of expression in Turkey, one should not indulge in over-optimism. The Constitutional Court appeared highly divided as to the decision: with eight votes in favour and eight against, the result was reached only before the President’s vote is counted twice in case of a tie. The decision of the Court was harshly criticised by pro-governmental media and some politicians and, given the limited independence of justice, it is likely that the evolution of the political situation in the next months will be crucial for further openings in terms of freedom of expression and human rights.
From a legal perspective, this ruling of the Constitutional Court gives hope for all the academics who have been prosecuted and/or sentenced for signing the petition. According to the decision, those still under prosecution should be acquitted, retrials should be hold for the ones who have received a final sentence and the Courts of Appeal should reverse the conviction for the cases that are pending on appeal. On 8 August 2019, in a parallel case against individuals who endorsed the Declaration for Peace, a first defendant was acquitted by the Izmir Heavy Penal Court, which quoted the decision of the Constitutional Court in its judgment. The judgments of Istanbul first instance Heavy Penal Courts and of Regional Court of Appeal should follow in the next months. While the decisions of the Constitutional Court are binding on all inferior courts, these past years some first instance judges proved reluctant to apply its rulings. The trial of the Academics for Peace therefore continues to require close monitoring until the last case is dismissed.
Beyond the judicial process, further steps need to be taken urgently to provide redress to the hundreds of academics whose lives and careers have been dramatically impacted since 2016. First, Academics who were dismissed or forced to resign should receive compensation and be reinstated if they wish. Practically however, the modalities of this process will be complex and highly dependent on political will. Provisions against the return of purged academics to their universities were adopted in these last years and only comprehensive and radical reforms will make it possible to reverse the process. In addition, in most universities, the purges of critical academics have been concomitant to the nomination of pro-governmental university rectors and academic staff. It is difficult to imagine that the Higher Education Council and the complicit university administrations will welcome back the Academics for Peace, unless they feel legally or politically compelled to do so. In this respect, the recent initiative of a few rectors of Turkish universities to release a declaration against the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which more than one thousand academics signed willingly or under pressure, is just the tip of the iceberg.
More crucially, it is likely that a number of academics will be unwilling to return to Turkeys’s academia. In many cases, not only mobbing and false accusations from the administration, but also lack of support from colleagues fearing for their own positions, have been more painful than the dismissal itself. Some signatories started new lives in Turkey or abroad, others became involved in solidarity academies, alternative structures of teaching and research. Many will not be ready to compromise to work again in institutions under the tight control of the state, where the space for critical thinking and teaching has been dramatically shrinking and academic freedom is under constant threat.
The revocation of passports is another urgent issue that needs to be resolved. Academics for Peace dismissed by emergency-decrees have had their passport revoked and are prevented from travelling. As they are also banned on public service employment and subjected to various discriminations in other work areas, their situation is extremely precarious. As for those who managed to go abroad, they cannot renew their passports, and several have already been compelled to claim asylum to get a legal status in their new country. An application made by three academics against the cancellation of their passports is pending before the European Court of Human Rights, but the victims of this travel ban have already suffered important moral and material prejudices and this unfair sanction should be lifted without further delay.
Despite the recent decision of the Constitutional Court and the remarkable support shown by global academia, the Academics for Peace’s case is far from being over. It is likely that the ongoing issues raised by the case will continue to echo challenges faced by academics throughout the world, such as attacks on academic freedom, criminalisation of critical thought, shrinking autonomy of universities and increasing precarity of academics. Yet, transnational solidarity around this case and attempts to develop alternative academic spaces among and for the Academics for Peace may also contribute to bring hope and inspiration to all those who fight for academic freedom and against academic precarity, in authoritarian and neo-liberal states.