Friday, March 18, 2016

MESA CAF's letter notes staggering threats to freedom of expression in academics' arrests as details of Istanbul prosecutor's warrant hints at a wider witch-hunt

In response to the detention, interrogation and arrest of three academics and the recent escalation of Turkish government’s action against the academics who signed the Peace Petition "We will not be a Party to this Crime", Middle East Studies Association's Committee on Academic Freedom, MESA CAF issued a letter on March 17 and indicated "the violations of academic freedom in Turkey now include the pre-textual use of anti-terrorism laws to arrest academics, the trampling of separation of powers and basic rule of law requirements to enable the executive to manage a campaign of prosecutions against petition signatories, and new proposals to further broaden terrorism laws to encompass the protected activities of academics, journalists, politicians and NGO advocates.” MESA CAF’s letter outlined how the interference of the Ministry of Justice to the legal procedure “undermines the separation of powers protected by the Turkish constitution and also crystallizes a clear intent of the government to try the signatories under the anti-terror laws.” In addition, the letter drew attention to President Erdogan’s public calls to the legislative and judiciary branches of the government as indications of his “intent on deflecting attention from security lapses by scapegoating the petition signatories as supporters of terrorism” and his attempt to change Turkish criminal law to “redefine any activity supportive of Kurdish rights as support for terrorism threatening to permanently criminalize freedom of expression, freedom of association and academic freedom for anyone working on Kurdish issues.”

MESA Committee’s letter focused on the arrest warrant issued by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office (photographed below on the left) and observed that the claim (number 1 on the warrant) “peace petition signatories acted in coordination with the PKK because an individual associated with that organization, Bese Hozat, had earlier called for intellectuals to support Kurdish self-governance … [is a] spurious allegation [that] has no basis. The claim that a petition calling for the government to desist from military action in the Kurdish provinces and resume a peace process amounts to support for terrorism represents a staggering threat to freedom of expression and academic freedom in Turkey. By the government’s logic, any speech, research, writing, opinion, organizing or demonstration supportive of Kurdish rights may be conflated with support for terrorism.”

Indeed, a closer look at the circumstances of the academics’ arrest and the details of the prosecutor’s warrant reveal Erdogan regime’s political motivations to use the terrorism charges as a pretext to crush dissent rather than any desire to follow even a semblance of justice. The logic and the terminology that seem to be guiding the prosecutor’s investigation become clear in the item (number 2 in the warrant) that explicitly bases the prosecutor’s claims on a conspiracy theory article published in a pro-government website. As the full English translation of the article shows, the prosecutor’s office acts within the orbit of Erdogan’s claims of “treason” for any person or organization that the regime views as standing in the way of Turkey’s newly adopted assertive game plan in domestic and foreign policy. As such, the persecution of academics seems to herald a witch-hunt covering a wide network of journalists, academics, civil society organizations and media institutions as enemies of the state. The interrogation questions that the prosecutor directed at the detained academics give an indication of the blatant disregard for the rule of law and respect for freedom of thought that Erdogan regime projects.