Turkey: Academics for Peace trials violate free expression

ARTICLE 19 calls for the charges to be immediately dropped against all the signatories of the “Academics for Peace” petition and for anti-terror legislation to be reformed in line with international human rights standards.

A petition entitled “We will not be a party to this crime” was issued in January 2016 and garnered over one thousand signatures by academics and researchers from Turkey and abroad. The petition condemned government policy towards the Kurdish regions in Turkey and highlighted human rights violations occurring in the area. It further called for a reopening of the negotiations over the conflict in the South East. The Turkish authorities argue that the petition amounts to terrorist propaganda.

“There is a total lack of evidence against the Academics. Nothing in the petition can be understood as likely to incite violence or terrorism”, said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. “It is clear that the Turkish authorities are abusing anti-terror legislation to silence critical voices”, she added.

The trials of 146 of the signatories started on 5 December 2017 and while the indictment is identical for each defendant, the cases are being dealt with separately. Trials of four other defendants started in April 2016. Twenty-seven of those charged for signing the petition were detained in January 2016 and later released on bail. Other signatories have been dismissed from their positions, threatened or pressured to resign.

Lack of clarity over the charges
The indictment in today’s cases specifies charges of “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” under Article 7(2) of the Anti-terror law and Article 53 of the Turkish Penal Code, however there is a possibility that an additional charge of “Insulting the Turkish nation and state” under Article 301 of the Penal Code may be added to the cases.

The confusion around the charges arose after four of the signatories were arrested following a second news conference in 2016. At the first hearing, the prosecutor announced he would seek permission from the Ministry of Justice to change the charge to “Insulting the Turkish nation and state”. This permission was granted in August 2017. This charge has not been added to the subsequent cases; however, defendants in the hearings ARTICLE 19 monitored today refused to deliver their defence statements while there remains lack of clarity over the charges.

In each of the cases heard today, the requests of the defence lawyers for immediate acquittal, the merging of the cases and clarity over the charges were rejected. The fact that the charges against four of the defendants in identical cases have been changed, while the charges against the others have not so far raises concerns around consistency and rule of law.

The trials violate Turkey’s commitments under international human rights law
ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the legal basis for the prosecutions, specifically the charge of “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, relies on overly broad definitions, allowing abusive and arbitrary application.

According to the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which authoritatively interpret international human rights law in the context of national security-related restrictions on freedom of expression, expression can only be criminalised for the protection of national security when the government can demonstrate that the following three conditions are strictly met:

The expression is intended to incite imminent violence;
it is likely to incite such violence; and
there is a direct and immediate connection between the speech and the likelihood or occurrence of the violence.
These conditions are manifestly not present in this case, where nothing in the petition could remotely be considered as incitement to violence.

Furthermore, the charge of “insulting the Turkish nation or state”, if added to the cases, is not compatible with international human rights standards. Protecting the nation or state from criticism is not considered a legitimate aim for restricting expression under international law.

“These efforts to silence the Academics for Peace do not just harm those on trial, but also have a negative effect on Turkish society more broadly. Academics play a critical role in pursuing and identifying the truth through open debate of diverse views”; said Katie Morris; “These trials create a chilling effect on the free flow of information and ideas, encouraging self-censorship and preventing people from speaking up. Ultimately, this deprives the population more broadly of the right to receive new ideas and hold their government to account,” she added.

ARTICLE 19 calls upon the Turkish authorities to unconditionally drop all charges against the academics, to amend its criminal code and anti-terror legislation to being them in line with international standards, and to refrain from further abuse of anti-terror legislation to silence critics.

Source: Article 19