[This article is a part of Jadaliyya's Summer of Coups Series.]
As Turkey’s elections are over and Erdogan is consolidating his power in the new presidential system, Academics for Peace continue facing trials for signing the Peace Petition in January 2016. The petition titled “We will not be a party to this crime” was a response to human rights violations by the Turkish government in the country’s Kurdish region after the state called off the peace process with the PKK and introduced curfews in Kurdish towns.
Murat Birdal, associate professor of economics at the Istanbul University and one of the academics who signed the Peace Petition, delivered his defense at a trial on 28 June 2018. He answers the questions about the repercussions that the Academics for Peace have been facing since they signed the petition and comments on the outcome of the elections.
Why did you sign the Peace Petition?
Mainly because of the conflict in the Kurdish region that was taking place at the time and human rights violations. That is the basic reason.
What were the repercussions for the signatories?
Many of the signatories have been sacked from their universities. A large portion of them was forced to leave the country to find academic jobs elsewhere. Other than that, they face trials in the country. Some of them were even attacked in their work environments at universities. They were forced to leave the cities, especially in the eastern regions. It was obviously a costly signature for them.
What are the accusations put forth by the state against them in criminal proceedings?
The accusation is praising terrorism and supporting the terrorist organization, the PKK.
Has the state adhered to the due process?
So far, they have.
So there are legal foundations for this kind of trial?
Of course, if the state comes forward with a claim, they create their own foundations.
In terms of the pressure in academia, those who were not expelled or fired, what kind of pressure do they face? You, for example, were not fired from your university.
All these processes set an example for others who remain in universities. What we have faced so far has been a warning for them. You see fewer people writing in journals, newspapers as they do not want to face this kind of trial. It is a risky decision to make in Turkey. Even in economics, people do not want to write about issues that are critical of the government.
What were the consequences personally for you?
In my case, I am still pursuing the same lifestyle in that sense. I am still writing in a newspaper Evrensel against the government. Thus, I did not change my attitude, but you can easily observe that many academics refrain from writing in public journals.
What was the outcome of your court hearing today?
It was postponed.
Is this a usual move by the prosecution?
What defense strategies have you pursued?
I just defended my signature. I outlined the whole process, the conflict and the results of that conflict, the human toll, the human rights violations at that time. So I just tried to lay a foundation for my signature. Did they buy it? No. I had to do it. That is it. It is not like I changed the outcome. Before entering the courtroom, I already knew it. This is the basic problem, actually. My lawyers said the same thing. The main problem with these trials is that before entering the courtroom you know what the punishment is going to be. There are around one thousand signatories tried separately. This is a big problem because before entering the courtroom you see the outcome of other trials and all these trials are tied to each other. They should be separate from one another, otherwise, it does not make sense. Moreover, the judge, since he had made a decision earlier, cannot make another decision based on your defense, so it does not change much, and your defense does not matter, your statement does not matter. The court does not care because the decision is made somewhere else. I seriously doubt that the judge can make a different decision because it will definitely have an outcome for him. We have seen those examples in the past. If the judge makes a decision against the government’s wishes, then he might face adverse consequences.
So the judges are also under pressure?
Have there been any acquittals?
No cases have been dismissed so far. Everyone has faced some kind of punishment. There is no difference between cases. There are some signatories who withdrew their signatures after this whole thing erupted when Erdogan made his speech. That is how it started. Our signatures were published in newspapers. A week later, Erdogan saw these signatures and he went on television and declared that we were terrorists, that we were supporting terrorists and that he would not permit such people to remain in the academia, and thus he ignited this process. Since then, there has been no exception. They are opening cases against all of us, one by one. So far, we all are facing the same sentence.
In regards to expulsions from universities, can people expect to get their positions back?
If the elections had had a different outcome, people could have expected something like that. But right now, there is no prospect. Some of our friends were sacked from private universities and their firing had no legal foundations. They tried to find positions elsewhere, but it is not possible because there is an unofficial list. Even if you have not been sentenced so far, there is this blacklist that does not allow you to be employed elsewhere. This is the reason why we have so many academics working abroad these days. Probably, if you look at the list, 300-400 people are outside of the country.
Were there any universities that tried to defend their academics?
Boğaziçi University, which in the past used to be tied to an American foundation, initially made a statement saying that they are standing together with professors. But the administration of the university has been replaced, so we have not heard from them after that. I do not remember any other university making such a statement.
How did the failed coup add another dimension to the repression?
The failed coup provided them a legal foundation to fire these people without court decisions. I cannot give you an exact number but probably around two hundred of our friends have been fired from the universities; they cannot serve in the government any longer. Also, they were forced to give away their passports. They do not have the right to leave the country any longer, so many of the rights were taken away from them. The coup was really functional for the government.
You mentioned the election results. Will the outcome of the elections increase the repression?
The election results showed that the majority of the population does not care about freedom of speech. The government perceives the results as the approval of the policies that they have pursued so far. So they will have an adverse consequence on these freedoms, there is no doubt about that.
However, in Turkey, things can change very quickly. There is always room for hope. Turkey is a country very closely tied to the outside market. If you look at authoritarian regimes elsewhere, you can see that they have their own resources, surpluses, etc. Turkey is the opposite. For the Turkish economy to remain this way, we need outside funding to flow into the country. So they may also be forced to make some kind of compromise in the future. We will see about that. But the elections results made it worse; there is no question about that.
Speaking about hope, have the Academics for Peace or the academia in general engaged in any other initiatives challenging the government after the crackdown on the signatories of the Peace Petition?
Actually, the number of signatories is a large number; we are talking about more than one thousand. If you consider the size of the Turkish academia, it is huge. It included more or less everyone from the opposition. There are so few people left outside, and all these people faced very adverse circumstances. After that, people were just trying to protect themselves rather than trying to attack the government in other ways. Frankly, we did a couple of things, other press declarations, and we are also being tried for that. There was another declaration, right after this one; actually in that statement we were giving the toll in the universities that hundreds of people were sacked, that these academics were attacked and so on. They are also trying us because of that. After that, nothing else. Again, the failed coup changed everything else.
What has been the role of international solidarity?
There has been solidarity—we cannot deny that—but at a lower level. Some members of parliament came from European countries to our trials. I am not sure if they were at this trial, but probably there were some people from European embassies today—in my and others’ hearings. They are closely following trials and providing funding for Turkish academics who want to leave the country, but this does not last too long. Many people went outside, got funding for one or two years, but they were either forced to come back or they are having hard times pursuing their lives in those European countries. So there has been some support; they are still closely following the process. But does it change our lives here? No, it does not. It does not make it any easier.
Your brother, who is also an Academic for Peace, is currently staying in the United States, at USC. What is his story?
My brother was working at a private university. We both graduated in the United States. After this thing came out, after Erdogan’s speech was published in European and American newspapers, some of our friends, professors, tried to provide us with some opportunities outside the country. My brother went to the United States and, while he was there, he was sacked from his university, so he remained there for another year. He did not flee after this trial process, that is, before the trial started. He is going to remain there for a while as there are no work opportunities here anymore. If we lose our job, we cannot find another job. It was especially hard for people from private universities. They were sacked right after Erdogan’s speech, many of them. My brother was a bit luckier; his university tried to stand against the government for a while. They did not make a statement or anything, but they avoided the whole thing. Then the president of the university changed, the administration changed, and a week later or so they sacked everyone who did not withdraw their signatures. That is what some universities did. They did the same in my university: the dean or the president of the university just invites you to his office and asks you to withdraw your signature from the statement, and if you do not accept the withdrawal, they just end your job at the university.
With the postponed judgment in your criminal case, what are you expecting?
There is nothing to expect. We know what is going to happen. In the previous cases, the sentence was fifteen months in prison. It is probably the same thing for all of us.
Is this a suspended prison sentence?
In previous cases, they suspended it. There is another legal term in Turkish, hükmün açıklanmasının geri bırakılması; I do not know if this term exists in other legal systems. It is a bit different from suspension. The court does not actually formally announce the sentence but if you commit another crime (just like suspension), then the sentence is announced and you suffer consequences for both crimes. This has been the usual decision so far, so we will see.
As university administrations continue working with the government, what are other pressures on you in universities?
In universities, of course, they are all kinds of pressure, not only in terms of free speech. Also, if you are a public figure, if you write elsewhere, if your political stance is well known by the government, they just kick you out of the academic juries. They do not give you as many courses as they give your colleagues. We faced this earlier, even before the whole signature process. Now it is, of course, nothing that can be compared to before. That is the thing—the AKP party has never been as democratic as it has been seen or accepted by the West.
28 June 2018
Today we are standing trial with hundreds of our colleagues because we signed the Peace Petition. Many academics have been dismissed in the two-year period after the text of the petition was published. The signatures have been used as a pretext to remove the opponents inside academia who disturb the government. This process has become one of the major representative cases in the context of the ongoing discussion about the academic freedom in the world.
İt is emphasized in the indictment that the “truth” was distorted in the Peace Petition and an alternative “truth” is being put forward. Due to its structure, a state mechanism functions to maintain the existing system and to protect the status quo. In this sense, from the point of view of those in power, the truth has value if and only if it serves or does not challenge the status quo. Those who act against this are disregarded or discredited. Contrary to the state bureaucracy and politicians, a scholar’s raison d’etre is to find and unravel the truths which are being concealed. Thus, these representative instances of confrontation with the academy and political power are neither peculiar to our country nor can they be restricted to a special period. However, classifying the critics of political power as supporters of terrorism is a phenomenon that appears only in authoritarian regimes.
The indictment that was prepared against us contains an overview of the period in question with the purpose of creating a basis for the accusations against us. However, many events that constituted the basis for our petition, the subject matter of this trial, were omitted. It should not be forgotten that during that period many civilians lost their lives, some settlements were completely destroyed, and many people had to leave their homes.
A report prepared by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated that almost 2,000 people, including 800 members of security forces and 1,200 members of local population (civilians and militants), lost their lives; between 335,000 and half a million were forcibly displaced in the operations carried out between July 2015 and December 2016. It is pointed out in the same report that approximately 189 people—men, women, and children—had been deprived of food, water, electricity, and medical care and forced to stay in basements for weeks, after which they were burnt alive in a fire caused by artillery attacks.
Many tragic incidents came to light before the public during the period of the operations. The stories of Cemile Çağırca, a 10-year-old who was shot dead in front of her house in Cizre and whose body was kept in a refrigerator, or Zeynep Taşkın, who was shot dead with a baby in her arms, can be counted among the striking incidents which have not been erased from people’s memory even up till today.
As you can see, this humanitarian disaster caused by the operations is the reason why the petition, which brought together many academics of different political opinions, has attracted so much attention. Otherwise, the argument that such a huge number of academics acted in accordance with Bese Hozat’s statement is an allegation that the most biased mind could not be persuaded with. It is claimed in the indictment that we carried out propaganda of an armed terrorist organization by legitimizing its use of force, violence, and threats or encouraging the use of these means.
However, there is no expression encouraging violence in the petition, the subject matter of the investigation. In order to create a foundation for its claim, the prosecution did not quote directly from the text.
As an academician and a columnist with approximately twenty years of experience, all this time I have publicly expressed my attitude against the use of force and violence as a political means. My attitude was not different in the time period which I am being prosecuted for.
In an article in my column, published on September 11, 2015 in the daily newspaper Evrensel and titled “Create Power out of Instability,” I pointed out that by creating an atmosphere of fear throughout the society, the clashes and terrorist acts that took place at that moment played a big role in closing down democratic political channels. I also pointed out that those developments would contribute to the rise of authoritarianism. I emphasized the need to announce a ceasefire in order to create a ground for permanent peace. Time justified my prediction in regards to the consequences of violent acts occurring at that time. The terror atmosphere between the two elections was a big power win for the government, it created possibilities to suppress opponents in many spheres, from the press to academia. As you see, it was not the case that I was justifying and praising violence; on the contrary, my firm position against violence has not changed and is evident in my writings.
In the indictment, it is stated that the petition was opened to signatures following Bese Hozat’s statement, “Intellectual and democratic circles should defend self-governance.” The sole foundation for this claim of the prosecution is that Hozat’s statement appeared at a date prior to the petition. There is no phrase in the petition related to self-governance, nor any affirmative expression in regards to the politics of the organization [PKK], including its declaration of self-governance.
The indictment also included an English translation of the petition. In a conspicuous difference with the Turkish version, the indictment emphasizes the word “Kurdistan,” used in the second paragraph of the text. Yet, the word “Kurdistan” that appears in the prosecution’s translation is not found in the original text. The exact rendering of the phrase “Kurt illeri” in the original is “Kurdish provinces.”
Thus, the prosecution first tried to create a crime using the incorrect translation and then created a foundation for its claim by making a link between the word that it itself used and the organization [PKK]. The word “Kurdistan” is spelled the same in all languages that use the Latin alphabet. This being the case, it is hard to see the prosecution’s claim as a simple mistranslation. It should not be forgotten that falsification made in the translation provided one of the basic foundations for the crime attributed to the signatories.
It is also asserted in the indictment that no other country’s legal system would permit an action committed by the signatories. It is stated, “An academic, for example, cannot accuse the USA or any of the countries of the EU who fight against Al-Qaeda or ISIS of carrying out a massacre of these organizations. These countries’ legal systems would never permit this.” The phrasing “massacre of these organizations” belongs to the prosecution; what the petition emphasizes is the rights violations against the civilian population. Such distortion is necessary in terms of creating an internationally acceptable foundation for the prosecution’s claim. A lot of publications can be found in international literature about rights violations against civilians who lived through the operations carried out under the discourse of the war against terrorism. However, no one in the mentioned states has attempted to accuse authors of these publications of carrying out propaganda for terrorist organizations. In the fight against terrorism, one should not ignore the difference between drawing attention to and criticizing rights violations against the population and legitimizing actions involving terror and violence.
In conclusion, my purpose for signing this text was to reveal the inaccuracies and omissions on the part of the security forces, bureaucrats and politicians during the conflict that was taking place at that time and to call for a solution by political means for what has for a long time been the first and foremost problem of our country. Heeding to this effort is important in order to strengthen opportunities for life and establish permanent peace in the [Kurdish] region. On the contrary, punishing efforts in this direction will serve to protect politicians, bureaucrats and civil servants who are found to be responsible for human rights violations, weaken unity and integrity in the society as well as the possibilities for coexistence and open a door to new violations.
This is all I say.
J Butler, )“Academic Freedom and the Critical Task of the University,” Globalizations (2017), 1-5.