Top court’s ruling on academics stirs debate

Top court’s ruling on academics stirs debate

What freedom of expression means for Turkey and how the public opinion is fully divided on this very basic criterion of a democratic nation have become concrete in the recent days following a very important ruling by the Constitutional Court.

The high court ruled on July 26 that the rights of academics were violated when they were sentenced on charges of disseminating terror propaganda for signing a petition calling for the resumption of the Kurdish peace process and cessation of the army’s military operations in the southeastern Anatolian region.

As can be recalled, the petition under the title of Scholars for Peace was launched in January 2016 by a group of academics in the wake of military operations against the illegal PKK hideouts and caches in some villages in the said region. While criticizing the government’s security measures, the petition called for a new peace process for the peaceful resolution of the problem. 

The petition was signed by a total of 2,212 academics with more than 700 of them having been criminally prosecuted, according to Amnesty International. Some of them have been detained while a good majority of the scholars have lost their jobs and their passports have been seized.

The high court ordered retrials and compensation for the 10 academics who had appealed their sentences, basing the decision on Article 26 of the Turkish constitution that guarantees the freedom of expression.

But it was not an easy decision for the court. Out of 17 judges of the court, eight voted in favor of the applicants and the other eight against. The tie was broken only after Chief Judge Zühtü Arslan sided with those who ruled that the rights of the academics were violated.

As the reasoning of the decision has not been published yet, we don’t have any further information on what grounds judges defended their ruling. But, still, it constitutes an important development in terms of adopting a more liberal approach towards the freedom of expression in Turkey, which has heavily deteriorated in the past years.

As expected, the high court’s ruling has drawn very strongly-worded reactions from some political parties, think tanks, media and even academics and universities. Scores of columnists have devoted their columns to the decision of the court and slammed the judges who have voted in favor of the applicants. One columnist has even argued that Chief Judge Arslan had ties with FETÖ in the past.

Some universities have also joined the campaign as they issued statements to slam the ruling of the Constitutional Court. One of them, Istanbul Civilization University, in a written statement, argued that the content of the petition could not be elaborated within the boundaries of the freedom of expression. It also expressed concerns that terrorist acts could be increased in the case no necessary steps are taken in the light of the court’s decision.

In addition to these, a petition signed by 1,071 academics has been released against the court’s ruling, with the title of “The Constitutional Court cannot legitimize terror.” Describing the decision as scandal, the petition argued that making accusatory statements against a state because of fighting terrorism is not considered as exercising the freedom of expression.

This columnist has regarded this petition of the scholars as problematic, badly written and far from being fair. However, jailing the scholars for signing a petition is a disproportional move and a clear breach of rights. And the ruling by the high court just underlines this very universal principle and is in accordance with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.       

This campaign on the high court’s decision illustrates how difficult the path ahead will be for the genuine democrats of this country and how poor the freedom of expression is absorbed by some so-called intellectuals in the country. It shows that more efforts are needed for developing a democratic culture in Turkey

One quick reminder: According to the constitution, the rulings of the Constitutional Court are final and binding on the legislative, executive, and judicial organs, on the administrative authorities, and on persons and corporate bodies.

It’s therefore expected the lower court will abide by the ruling of the Constitutional Court and will handle the cases of concerned academics accordingly, unlike in early 2018 when a lower court resisted against another libertarian decision of the court.

Another note on the government’s take: There was no statement pro or against the court’s decision from the government when this column was written late afternoon on July 30.

A statement by the Justice Government to stop this campaign on the Constitutional Court would have been very good and indicative in terms of proving the government’s willingness to return to the democratic reforms as the freedom of expression is still one of the top issues that need to be resolved.

Serkan Demirtaş, Turkey, Constitution Court