Free to Think 2019 - Ongoing Attacks on Turkey’s Academics

Yazar / Referans: 
Scholars at Risk

Over the past year, Turkish authorities continued to prosecute Academics for Peace, a group of scholars, research assistants, and other academic personnel, on terrorism-related charges in retaliation for their endorsement of a January 2016 petition calling for peace in the embattled Kurdish regions of Turkey. Meanwhile, thousands of university personnel accused of affiliations disfavored by the state and linked to a July 2016 coup attempt remain fired, barred from civil service employment, and unable to leave the country, as per a series of State of Emergency decrees.

While the State of Emergency has since been lifted[28] and a July 2019 constitutional court ruling may offer relief to hundreds of academics prosecuted for endorsing the Peace Petition, the impact of this crackdown—now well into its third year—has been devastating for many thousands of university personnel and students, and risks irreparably damaging the reputation and future of Turkey’s higher education sector.


On January 11, 2016, a group of professors, lecturers, research assistants, and PhD candidates known as the “Academics for Peace” published a petition titled “We will not be a party to this crime.” The petition strongly condemned the Turkish government’s anti-terror policies in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of the country and urged state authorities to resume peace negotiations. At the time of its original release, 1,128 academics from 89 universities in Turkey had endorsed the petition, with more than two thousand academics, including many from around the world, ultimately signing on.

Immediately following the petition’s publication, Turkish authorities, and in particular President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, denounced Academics for Peace and began taking a range of retaliatory actions against the group. State and higher education authorities launched criminal and administrative investigations against the signatories, which in many cases resulted in detentions, arrests, and prosecutions on terrorism-related charges, as well as suspensions, firings, and other disciplinary actions by university administrators.

Starting in the fall of 2017, Turkish authorities brought Peace Petition signatories under a nearly uniform bill of indictment, charging them with violating Article 7(2) of Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law for disseminating “terrorist propaganda.”[29]

Scholars convicted in the Peace Petition proceedings have most frequently been sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment, with some receiving sentences of two to three years. In most cases, courts have suspended or deferred sentences, whereby those convicted can avoid prison time so long as they are not subsequently convicted of separate offenses. Defendants may also reject a suspension or deferral in order to preserve their right to an appeal.

As of this report, court proceedings were initiated against more than eight hundred signatories to the Peace Petition.[30] Of those, 203 have been sentenced, including 167 who have been issued suspended or deferred sentences.[31]

At least thirty-six convicted Peace Petition signatories have not had their sentences suspended or deferred.[32] These include defendants whose prison sentences are longer than two years, defendants who have rejected a deferment of the announcement of the verdict, and in some cases defendants who the court claims did not “express remorse” for endorsing the Peace Petition. This last subset of decisions has generated considerable international attention.

On December 19, 2018, the İstanbul 37th Heavy Penal Court convicted and sentenced forensics scholar and human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı to two years and six months imprisonment (AFMI 802). The presiding judge did not reduce or suspend Fincancı’s sentence, citing the scholar’s alleged lack of remorse regarding the charge. Fincancı’s classes were suspended by Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK) in September 2016 in connection with her endorsement of the Peace Petition.[33] She and two others had also been facing terrorism-related charges in a separate case related to their solidarity activities with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem.[34] On July 17, 2019, a court acquitted Fincancı and her co-defendants in the Özgür Gündem case.

On February 25, 2019, the İstanbul Regional Court of Justice upheld the conviction and sentencing of Zübeyde Füsun Üstel, a scholar of political science and a former Galatasaray University professor.[35] Füsun Üstel had appealed an April 2018 ruling by İstanbul’s 32ndHeavy Criminal Court, which convicted her on a “terrorist propaganda” charge. Füsun Üstel reportedly declined to have the court defer the announcement of the verdict in her case in order to preserve her right to appeal the court’s ruling and to argue that endorsement of a petition calling for peace is not a crime. During her appeal hearing, the court reportedly cited Füsun Üstel’s lack of remorse as grounds for upholding the İstanbul Heavy Court’s conviction and sentencing. On May 8, Füsun Üstel entered Eskişehir Women’s Closed Prison as the first academic to begin serving a prison sentence explicitly for their endorsement of the Peace Petition. On July 22, after seventy-five days in custody, authorities released Füsun Üstel following a court decision to suspend her sentence while she awaited an appeal.

On May 21, the İstanbul 25th Heavy Penal Court sentenced Sabancı University professor Ayşe Gül Altınay to two years and one month imprisonment on a charge of “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization as a non-member” (AFMI 920). At her final hearing, one judge reportedly dissented, stating that Altınay should have instead been charged with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” Altınay’s sentence was not deferred, as she was sentenced to more than two years’ imprisonment.

The prosecution of Peace Petition signatories took a major change of course on July 26, when Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled in a nine-to-eight decision that the conviction of ten academics for their endorsement of the petition violated their right to freedom of expression.[36] The court ordered that lower courts conduct retrials and that the defendants be paid 9,000 lira (roughly $1,595 USD) in compensation. The decision could serve as a significant precedent in the Peace Petition proceedings, with the possibility of ongoing prosecutions being dropped and past verdicts being overturned in appeal proceedings. Indeed, by October 2019, more than three hundred Peace Petition signatories had reportedly been acquitted.[37] It remains to be seen whether and how the Constitutional Court ruling will figure into appeals of dismissals and travel restrictions ordered by State of Emergency decrees, as discussed later in this chapter.

Despite this positive development, the prosecutions and other actions targeting the Academics for Peace have nevertheless had a devastating impact. Mounting legal fees have created significant burdens for scholars and their families and the very public nature of the court proceedings and the severity of the charges risk irreparably tarnishing academic careers. Moreover, the consequences imposed by the state for endorsing the Peace Petition are also likely to have a severe chilling effect on academic expression and inquiry in Turkey, dissuading current and future scholars and students from fully exercising their academic freedom.


Throughout Turkey, thousands of academics remain in a state of “civil death”—fired from their university positions, barred from future public employment, and unable to legally leave the country after being accused of affiliations the government disfavors or believes are connected to alleged terrorist organizations.

Six months after the publication of the Peace Petition, the Turkish government announced a State of Emergency in response to a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016, that left more than 240 people dead and nearly 2,200 injured. Under the State of Emergency, the government took sweeping actions targeting the higher education sector, among other areas of civil society, in an effort to oust from public institutions individuals accused of supporting the coup attempt. These accusations have primarily been based on alleged connections to Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in the United States since 1999, who government officials claim coordinated the coup attempt.

Over the next two years, Turkish authorities detained and arrested hundreds of scholars and students for alleged connections to Gülen, without evidence or with specious evidence, such as possession of US one-dollar bills (whose serial numbers purportedly indicate their rank in Gülen’s network) or having attended an educational institution supported by Gülen. The status of many of those arrested remains unknown.

During this time, Erdoğan’s government also issued State of Emergency decrees that ordered, among other things, the closure of 15 universities and the dismissal of more than 7,500 academic and administrative personnel from Turkish universities, including many signatories to the Peace Petition. Another 301 university students were further expelled from their institutions. University personnel targeted with dismissal are permanently banned from public sector employment and are subject to a travel ban. The public nature of the decrees has made it impossible for academics named in the decrees to obtain positions at private universities. Unable to work in Turkey or to seek work in exile, dismissed academics have described the decree orders as career-ending.

In January 2017, a State of Emergency Appeals Commission (OHAL) was ordered to assess and respond to requests from those who believed they were wrongfully targeted by the decrees. On August 29, 2019, OHAL announced that it had received 126,200 applications, with decisions made on 84,300 (roughly two-thirds).[38] Approximately eight percent of those applications were reportedly decided in favor of the applicants; it is unclear how many involved higher education personnel. According to State of Emergency decree No. 694, the Higher Education Council (YÖK) will assign reinstated academics to universities where they were not previously employed, giving priority to universities outside of Turkey’s major urban centers.[39] Applicants whose appeals are rejected by OHAL may appeal through Turkey’s administrative courts.[40] As OHAL does not publish written decisions or publicly explain its legal reasoning for those decisions, it is impossible to determine what standards for evidence or reversal have been applied, thereby making it impossible to view the commission as a viable pathway to relief for scholars, students, or others whose rights the state may have violated


In addition to the ongoing punishment of the Peace Petition signatories and those accused of affiliations disfavored by the government, Turkish authorities have in a number of other high-profile incidents used travel restrictions, imprisonment, and prosecutions in order to retaliate against and restrict nonviolent academic and expressive activity and associations.

On November 9, 2018, police detained legal scholar Cenk Yiğiter in apparent retaliation for his online expression (AFMI 775). Yiğiter, a Peace Petition signatory, was dismissed from his position at Ankara University by order of emergency decree in January 2017. Shortly after he posted comments on the impact of the dismissal to social media, anti-terrorism police raided Yiğiter’s home and detained him. Authorities interrogated Dr. Yiğiter over the course of three days and released him on November 12. Yiğiter was charged with “engaging in actions and activities in the name of a terrorist organisation” for his social media activity and comments he made to the press regarding his dismissal in 2017.

On November 16, Turkish authorities detained Turgut Tarhanlı, dean of the faculty of law at İstanbul Bilgi University, and Betul Tanbay, professor of mathematics at Boğaziçi University, along with ten others, for alleged connections to human rights activist Osman Kavala and a series of protests that took place across Turkey in 2013 (AFMI 781). Kavala, a business leader who co-founded the civil society organization Anadolu Kültür in 2002, was detained in October 2017 for his alleged role in organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Police detained Professors Tarhanlı and Tanbay, along with ten others, in the early morning hours based on their alleged connections to Kavala and their alleged participation in the Gezi Park protests. By November 17, authorities had released the detainees after taking their statements.

On December 10, Turkish authorities arrested Berivan Bila, a journalism student at Karadeniz Technical University, for “insulting the president” (AFMI 798). The charge stemmed from a July 2017 article Bila wrote titled, “Journalism is Not a Crime,” which was in response to the detention of Cumhuriyet reporters, and expressed concern over eroding press freedoms in Turkey. In early December 2018, state authorities reportedly issued a warrant for Bila’s arrest in connection to the July 2017 article. On December 17, authorities released Bila after a week in custody.

On May 10, 2019, police fired tear gas at demonstrators on the campus of Middle East Technical University (METU) and detained twenty-five people during a campus Pride parade (AFMI 915). Days before the parade, METU’s rector announced that the annual campus Pride parade—an increasingly common event around the world to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community—would not be permitted (AFMI 911). When students held the Pride parade on campus despite the ban, police informed them they were not permitted to fly a rainbow flag, sit on the lawn, or stand under tents. Police prevented students from reading a prepared statement at the parade, before reportedly firing tear gas at the group, and then arresting twenty-four students and one professor.

And on May 11, Turkish authorities arrested mathematics professor Ahmet Tuna Altınel (AFMI 916). Altınel, who has taught mathematics for more than twenty-five years at the University of Lyon 1, in France, had been on trial for his endorsement of the Peace Petition and had attended one of his court hearings in February 2019. In April 2019, Turkish authorities confiscated Altınel’s passport upon his return to Turkey for a family visit. When Altınel went to a police station in Balikesir on May 11 to inquire about his passport, authorities interrogated and then arrested him. Sources indicate that authorities charged him with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” apparently based on accusations that Altınel expressed support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by organizing and participating in a screening of the documentary “Djizré, histoire d’un massacre” (translated as “Cizre, history of a massacre”), held in Lyon, France, on February 21. The screening featured the presence of Faysal Sariyildiz, an exiled representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which opponents accuse of being aligned with the PKK. Associates of Altınel and the organizers of the screening rebutted the authorities’ allegations, asserting that Altınel did not organize the screening, is not a supporter of the PKK, and had only offered to translate the remarks of representative Sariyildiz. During his first hearing on July 30—following months of advocacy by academic groups and French officials—the Balıkesir 2nd Heavy Penal Court ordered Altınel’s release without judicial control and exempted him from attending future hearings connected to this case.


Turkey’s higher education community is nearly four years into a state-led campaign of attacks on the freedom to think, question, and share ideas.

Thousands of university personnel and students remain exiled from Turkey’s universities as a result of emergency decrees. Meanwhile, the prosecutions of the Academics for Peace, along with a steady flow of reports of retaliatory attacks on academic and expressive activity, continue to send a message to scholars, students, and all members of Turkish society that ideas that question government policy, rhetoric, or norms will be met with serious consequences.

The impact of actions by Turkish authorities on the higher education sector—actions allegedly intended to address national security issues—is becoming increasingly apparent. Indeed, in June 2019, the UK-based Times reported that five of Turkey’s elite universities had fallen in the QS World University Rankings.[41]

To secure the future of Turkey’s higher education sector, Turkish authorities must remedy previous individual and sector-wide actions, including by fulfilling all constitutional and international human rights obligations related to academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and due process; releasing all wrongfully detained individuals; dropping charges against those wrongfully prosecuted; and reversing convictions based on nonviolent expression and associations.

Leaders of higher education institutions, including Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK), and other members of civil society should press state authorities to accelerate the aforementioned actions; to suspend any investigations, prosecutions, detentions, or other pending disciplinary measures; and to ensure due process for all victims under prosecution or in appeals proceedings.

Finally, government and higher education leaders around the world who support academic freedom are urged to press Turkish state and higher education authorities to accelerate these actions and to demonstrate publicly their own commitment to academic freedom in Turkey by insisting on academic freedom as a central tenet of their partnerships in Turkey, and by creating opportunities to support Turkish scholars and students who have been dismissed or forced into exile.

[28]             Despite this, the Turkish government passed anti-terrorism legislation that closely mirrored elements of the State of Emergency, including provisions that extend detentions without charge and permit dismissals of higher education personnel and other civil servants and the cancellation of their passports by decree.
[29]             Under Article 7(2), “any person who disseminates propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation by justifying, praising or encouraging the use of methods constituting coercion, violence or threats shall be liable to a term of imprisonment of one to five years…”
[30]             Barış İçin Akademisyenler / Academics for Peace, “Academics for Peace – Hearing Statistics as of 06.09.2019,”, (last accessed October 4, 2019).
[31]             Ibid.
[32]             Barış İçin Akademisyenler / Academics for Peace, “Academics for Peace – Hearing Statistics as of 06.09.2019,”, (last accessed October 4, 2019).
[33]             See
[34]             See
[35]             See
[36]             Ali Kucukgocmen, “Turkish court rules academics’ rights violated in Kurdish letter case: Anadolu,” Reuters, July 26, 2019, “Court says Turkey violated petition-signing scholars’ rights,” Associated Press, July 26, 2019,
[37]             Barış İçin Akademisyenler / Academics for Peace, “Academics for Peace – Hearing Statistics as of 06.09.2019,”, (last accessed October 4, 2019).
[38]             The Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures (OHAL), “Announcement on the Decisions of the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures (29 August 2019),” August 29, 2019,, (last accessed September 13, 2019).
[39]             See Article 198 at
[40]             OHAL, “Examination Process,” (last accessed September 13, 2019).
[41]             Hannah Lucinda Smith, “Turkish universities fall in tables after Erdogan’s purges,” The Times, June 25, 2019,