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Letter to Turkish PM Davutoglu Expressing Serious Concern Over Investigation and Prosecution of Scholars Who Are Signatories of the Peace Petition

[The following letter was issued by the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association on 22 February 2016 in response to the disciplinary and criminal investigations of scholars in Turkey who are signatories of the "Peace Petition." For the Appendix accompanying this letter which lists these investigations as well as retaliatory job terminations and threats to signatory academics in detail, please see the original version.]

February 22, 2016

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu

Office of the Prime Minister Başbakanlık

06573 Ankara, Turkey

Via facsimile +90 312 417 0476

Dear Prime Minister Davutoğlu:

We write on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America and its Committee on Academic Freedom to reiterate our serious concern over the disciplinary investigations and criminal prosecutions that have been undertaken against scholars who signed a petition for peace in the Kurdish regions of the country (“Peace Petition”). In our previous letter on this matter, dated January 14, 2016, we wrote in response to the immediate aftermath of a government-initiated campaign of intimidation against the signatories of the Petition following a speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan describing the signatories as “so-called academics” and “traitors.” Since we last wrote a broad pattern of persecution has emerged, encompassing suspensions and terminations of academics from positions at universities, detention, interrogation and prosecution of faculty members by over-zealous prosecutors, and a spate of threats and attacks against academic signatories by vigilante actors. This lamentable and worsening campaign of speech suppression leaves us no choice but to write to you again, adding to the growing international alarm at your government’s failure to protect the academic freedom, freedom of expression and even the physical security of the Petition signatories.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

The pattern of speech suppression we document is a consequence, in part, of directives from the Higher Education Council (Yükseköğretim Kurulu, or YÖK), under the auspices of your government, demanding that public universities initiate disciplinary proceedings and other reprisal actions against signatories. With the expansion of YÖK’s regulatory authorities over private universities (itself the subject of our earlier letter to you dated January 7, 2016), many private universities, too, have preemptively initiated disciplinary proceedings, perhaps fearing that failure to do so might subject them to punitive action. These YÖK directives, in turn, have contributed to a permissive environment for private acts of violence targeting Peace Petition signatories with strong encouragement by pro-government media.

More alarming even than the YÖK directive are two additional developments that have come to light since we last wrote to you concerning the Peace Petition signatories. First, Circular 2016/4 published in the Official Gazette on February 17, 2016 indicates that all civil servants (presumably including public university professors and researchers) will be subject to disciplinary and criminal investigation should they be deemed to have joined, supported or propagandized on behalf of an organization designated “terrorist” by the government or organizations “using an apparently lawful front to conduct illegal activities” (legal görünüm altında illegal faaliyet yürüten). The breadth of this circular—including even lawful organizations that the government may later designate as having engaged in illegal activities—casts a shadow of potential criminality over the activities of public sector academics and researchers working on any aspect of political organizing in Turkey. The implications are especially chilling of all work concerning the Kurdish community in light of the government’s targeting of Kurdish organizations and activists as part of a very broadly defined anti-terror campaign. In short, the circular threatens to compound the campaign of prosecution and persecution against Peace Petition signatories by entrenching a policy of criminalizing pro-Kurdish opinion and expression by public university academics in Turkey.

The second alarming development is the public revelation that prosecutors’ offices have sent letters to university administrators requiring that they furnish prosecutors with the names and identity documents of all Peace Petition signatories affiliated with their universities and that they enumerate actions taken against such signatories by the university. In light of the fact that the petition was published with a list of all signatories and their university affiliations, this request cannot be designed to gather information to which the government does not already have access from open sources. Rather, it appears designed to pressure universities to collect information and establish a record of disciplining any faculty, researcher or graduate student that signed the Petition. This kind of pressure on universities from government prosecutors goes even further than the YÖK directive in using the police powers of the executive branch to require punitive action against signatories by university administrators in addition to the criminal investigations initiated by the government.

The government-initiated campaign calling on universities to take action against signatories of the Peace Petition is not only a direct violation of academic freedom and Turkey’s international law obligations, it is also of dubious legality under Turkish law. As a Turkish Supreme Court decision in April 2015 (published in the Official Gazette on January 7, 2016) makes clear, YÖK does not have the constitutional authority to initiate academic disciplinary proceedings either under its own regulatory powers or under a separate law governing disciplinary proceedings for faculty at public universities. Until a new law governing such disciplinary actions is put in place, all of the disciplinary investigations initiated against Peace Petition signatories across the country remain unauthorized. That many of these investigations have not only gone forward but have resulted in the suspension without pay or termination of dozens of faculty members on the sole grounds of their having signed the petition is all the more troubling for its patent illegality whether under Turkish or international law. Further, the pressure brought to bear on universities by prosecutors’ offices is unprecedented and aggravates an already dire threat to academic freedom in Turkey. We respectfully request that all of these unlawful investigations and the resulting punishments that have been meted out against signatories for having expressed their political opinions be terminated or reversed.

The government’s decision to call on public prosecutors to initiate terrorism-based criminal investigations of the Petition signatories represents another far-reaching violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression. The detention and interrogation of dozens of academics since we last wrote on the subject of the Peace Petition has been well-documented by solidarity networks that have developed to lend support to Turkish academics being targeted by government reprisal actions and the attendant pattern of public and private threats and harassment. Petition signatories who are academics residing in Turkey have been subjected to a relentless campaign of intimidation, facing suspensions and terminations from their hard-earned academic positions and, worse, the threat of years or decades of court battles to defend against baseless accusations of supporting terrorism or spreading terrorist propaganda. Some have even received death threats or threats against family members. The dark portrait of repression and state-sanctioned intimidation that has emerged in the aftermath of President Erdoğan’s initial condemnation of the signatories is more extensive, systematic and profound a violation of basic civil and political rights than has been witnessed in any period of recent Turkish history under civilian rule.

Moreover, this government-initiated campaign of repression through university disciplinary investigations and criminal prosecutions has also produced a permissive environment for private attacks on signatories. The waves of suspensions, terminations, detentions and interrogations has been accompanied by a far-reaching campaign of private intimidation. Pro-government newspapers have carried stories for weeks in which individual academics are singled out for having signed the petition, their names and photographs published alongside accusations of being pro-terror or having committed treason, and strong suggestions to the reading public that private vigilante attacks on signatories would be appropriate. Against the backdrop of recent examples of mob violence against newspaper columnists and editors following similarly suggestive articles, such threats cannot be taken lightly. In one notorious instance, Sedat Peker, a well-known mafia figure and self-proclaimed supporter of President Erdoğan declared that nationalists would “bathe in the blood of signatories” (“Akan kanınızla duş alacağız”). This proclamation was followed by a pattern of threatening messages signed by ultranationalist “idealist” groups taped to the doors of faculty offices together with vandals marking doors on campuses across the country with red crosses, suggesting particular academics may be singled out for violent attacks. Those subjected to these ultranationalist vigilante campaigns have received scant support or protection from the police or university administrators. As a result, these threats have forced faculty across the country to retreat from their campuses and offices into hiding.

The list of academics that have been individually subjected to disciplinary or criminal investigations or threats of violence from private parties is too long to recite in this letter. Nor do we wish to republicize the names of individuals to subject them to a second wave of intimidation, harassment and threats from pro-government forces acting as private vigilantes. Indeed, even if we wished to provide complete tallies of those who have been subjected to disciplinary investigation, termination, criminal investigation (which theoretically now includes all signatories, according to the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s office) and/or detention and interrogation, together with those targeted by private threats and harassment, any tally we provide would immediately become outdated. To give a sense, within two weeks of the president’s statement, one reputable academic network in Turkey reported that 39 academic signatories had been detained and interrogated, 109 subjected to disciplinary investigation and 29 removed from their positions. But these numbers have given way to much larger totals in the intervening weeks. Instead of trying to keep numbers updated, we provide, in an appendix to this letter, detailed information, where it is available, to offer a representative but non-exhaustive portrait of the gravity and magnitude of the pattern of harassment, intimidation, prosecution and repression to which academics have been subjected as a consequence of signing the Peace Petition.

The astonishing scope of the prosecutions, disciplinary investigations and campaigns of private harassment directed against the 1128 signatories of the Peace Petition is staggering. We have never before amassed such a record of violations of academic freedom and freedom of expression in such a short period in the history of our activities in defense of academic freedom in the countries of the Middle East. This record of repression and intimidation of academics is all the more disturbing when considered in light of Turkey’s reputation, until recently, of aspiring to maintain a standard of protection of civil and political rights in keeping with the European Convention of Human Rights. The magnitude of the reversal of Turkey’s earlier trajectory of political liberalization is expressed in the challenge of trying to capture the sheer volume of private and public attacks on academic freedom that have characterized just the first six weeks of 2016.

As a member state of the Council of Europe and a signatory of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Turkey is required to protect freedom of thought, expression and assembly. Turkey is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), all of which protect the rights to freedom of expression and association, which are at the heart of academic freedom. These rights are also enshrined in articles 25-27 of the Turkish Constitution. We urge your government to take all necessary steps to abandon the course currently being pursued and to return to earlier practices in line with ensuring that these rights are protected.

We respectfully ask that your government take immediate steps to ensure that all of the investigations, disciplinary and criminal, that we enumerate in this letter be terminated or reversed and that the permissive climate for vigilante action against academic signatories of the Peace Petition be immediately addressed through appropriate action on campuses and, where necessary, through additional protection for targeted individuals. Moreover, the widespread and libelous accusations against the signatories that have featured so prominently in the pro-government press should be deterred through clear statements by your government repudiating the allegations and threats being published against individual signatories. While we have tried to be comprehensive in the overview we provide of actions taken against signatories to date, there is no doubt that additional disciplinary or criminal investigations may be initiated; we respectfully demand that any such investigations also be dropped. Against a backdrop of mounting international condemnation of the erosion of democratic rights and freedoms under your administration, taking steps to protect academic freedom and the right to education would be an important step to address concerns about human rights in Turkey.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your positive response.

Yours sincerely,

Beth Baron

MESA President

Professor, City University of New York

Amy W. Newhall

MESA Executive Director

Associate Professor, University of Arizona

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