A Turkish academic has become the first scholar to go to prison for signing a peace petition in a move that could set a precedent for dozens of other academics whose cases are pending appeal.
Füsun Üstel, a political scientist at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, was charged with “propagandising for a terrorist organisation” and sentenced to 15 months in prison for signing a 2016 Academics for Peace petition that criticised military action in Kurdish regions of the country. She began serving her sentence on 8 May this year.
As well as being the first academic to be jailed for signing the petition, which was titled “We will not be a party to this crime”, Dr Üstel’s is the first case related to Academics for Peace that has been ruled on by the Court of Appeals.
Tunç Aybak, senior lecturer in politics at Middlesex University, said that the ruling was therefore “likely to set a precedent for other related cases pending appeal”.
“This is another attempt by the government to hollow out the independent and established institutions in Turkey, including the universities and the academic community,” he added.
More than 2,000 academics in Turkey signed the petition, and 189 have so far been sentenced to between 15 months and 36 months in prison, according to figures published by Academics for Peace on 9 May. The majority of these sentences have been suspended, while 37 scholars have chosen to appeal against their punishment.
Mehmet Ugur, professor of economics and institutions at the University of Greenwich, agreed that “the rejection of [Dr Üstel’s] appeal constitutes a dangerous precedent, with the risk of imprisonment for all signatories who decide to appeal their sentence”.
He said that the prison sentences had been deferred by the courts on the condition that “the defender agrees not to appeal”, adding that the appeal courts “rubber-stamp the sentences delivered under high political pressure”.
“The legal barbarism against Academics for Peace in Turkey has two dimensions. On the one hand, the law is used to dismiss and sentence them. The consequences of this lynching campaign are well known: unemployment, confiscation of passports, blacklisting of national insurance numbers and, recently, the danger of disenfranchisement if the dismissal was through state-of-emergency decrees,” he said.
“On the other hand, the law is used as a threat to force the sentenced academics to accept the sentence and avoid prison or to go to prison if they object.”
Burçe Çelik, programme director in the Institute for Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University’s London campus, added that Dr Üstel’s case was “extremely important for Turkey and many other countries that are ruled by neo-fascist populist strongman regimes because it shows the limitlessness of anti-intellectualism, anti-thinking and anti-speech attitudes of these regimes”.