Late Friday I squeezed with about 300 others into a small courtroom in this giant building, pressed in like the tightest rush-hour subway car, with a hundred more outside trying to get in or just to hear. Police with body armor, clubs and shields assembled visibly down the hall, an unnecessary show of force. A few ushers would have been more useful for shepherding the patient crowd of family members, friends, academic colleagues, lawyers, journalists, consular officials and international observers who came to show support for four imprisoned scholars from Istanbul — Muzaffer Kaya, assistant professor at Nişantaşı University; Esra Mungan Gürsoy, assistant professor at Boğaziçi University; Meral Camcı, assistant professor at Yüzyıl University; and Kıvanç Ersoy, associate professor at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.
They faced charges of terrorism.
Their alleged crime? Signing a public petition calling for renewal of the peace talks between the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
After the usual procedures the defendants, who had been detained for weeks (including solitary confinement), were given the chance to speak.
First up was Kaya, a sociologist. He began by noting that in the multi-page indictment only a few paragraphs addressed the defendant’s conduct, which nevertheless was not in dispute. The bulk of the indictment consisted of the prosecution’s version of the state’s conflict with the PKK and the discontinued peace process. Given a lectern, the defendant-professor could not resist. Despite facing seven years in prison if convicted, he chided the poor quality of the factual summary in the indictment, suggesting that the public prosecutor relied on Wikipedia as his only source and scoring it a “2 out of 10.” He then went on to deliver an extended lecture on the peace process and its demise, insisting that uttering such facts does not transform the defendants into terrorists, traitors or any of the other labels thrown at them in the pro-state media and by the highest state officials. Rather, he challenged the three-judge panel to release them and dismiss all charges; to show that “this is Turkey, a republic where citizens can still criticize their leaders, not North Korea.” The defendants, he said, were confident. They had done their homework. They would pass their test.
The professors are not the only ones being tested. Pressed by the conflict in Syria, the refugee crisis, and violent attacks in its cities, Turkey faces the test of addressing these challenges in a manner consistent with domestic and international human rights norms. The prosecutions of the four professors, the ongoing investigations of thousands of co-signatory academics, and unrelated prosecutions of journalists and lawyers, all suggest that the state is failing.
The asking of questions and expression of ideas — especially disputed or unpopular ideas — is not only essential to quality higher education; it is the root of democratic legitimacy and rule of law. Far from reflecting disloyalty, academics have a special responsibility within democratic society to ask questions and to impart information and ideas to the public. This ensures that sensitive issues may be more widely understood, and affords the public a means of forming opinions based on evidence and reason over passion, prejudice or ideology. The principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom are designed to protect scholars when they accept this responsibility, whether from overzealous official reactions or public outcry. This is especially true when the questions raised are complex, when information is limited, or even when conclusions are mistaken. A democratic state must show special restraint in sanctioning academic scrutiny and tolerate imprecision or even error in scholarly and public discourse to avoid crippling public debate and undermining its own legitimacy.
Turkey’s minister of national education, in a recent response to a letter of concern co-endorsed by more than 30 higher education associations from around the world, acknowledged the importance of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, noting that these are protected under Turkey’s constitution. He suggested, however, that the signatory academics had gone too far — that their critical words were an incitement to terrorism.
This argument goes too far. It has been used by state authorities around the world — from China to Egypt to Malaysia to Pakistan and beyond — to criminalize the expression of critical ideas by scholars and others. Scholars at Risk’s 2015 report, “Free to Think,” includes 47 examples of scholars being prosecuted under various types of laws — anti-terror, lèse-majesté, sedition, blasphemy, defamation — which often have an “emperor’s new clothes” dimension. Passed for ostensibly legitimate patriotic or national security reasons, in practice they are used to restrict thought, punish expression and intimidate individuals, society and higher education communities in particular.
Institutional autonomy and academic freedom, of course, do not shield acts of or incitements to physical violence. But if these values are to have any meaning, such that academics can embrace their responsibility to research, teach and comment on important issues, then the burden must be on the state to show conduct beyond mere questions and statements. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy demand a presumption that a scholar’s questions and ideas alone cannot be the basis for professional or personal sanction — whether expressed in books, research articles, essays, blog posts, class lectures, workshop or conference participation, teach-ins, nonviolent demonstrations or assemblies, public statements or petitions. Any restrictions or sanctions on these must be seen as inherently suspect, and must be shown by the state to be both absolutely necessary and more important than the public’s right to receive critical information. This is especially true when academics question government action, as in Turkey.
At the end of the hearing on Friday the court rendered its decision. Professor Kaya and his colleagues were released and the terror charge against them dismissed. But they would still face a charge of “insulting the state” — a long-standing thorn in Turkey’s human rights record, the use of which has ballooned under the current administration — with a new hearing date in September.
Score that an “incomplete” for the judiciary. Next to be tested are the minister of justice, who under statute must authorize or reject the continuing prosecution, and the minister of national education and the Council of Higher Education (known by the Turkish acronym “YÖK”), who can put an end to the ongoing investigations and persecutions of the other 2,000-plus academics who signed the peace petition.
Incompletes all around?