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Çağlayan court witnesses a call for peace


Beyza Kural

“Whatever I say, the verdict has already been decided”: It’s something that lawyers and academics mention frequently at hearings, but academics continue to say their words, as the courthouse in Çağlayan continues to witness great solidarity, persistence, truth and calls for peace.

“We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent. Instead, we demand an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by the state. We will continue advocacy with political parties, the parliament, and international public opinion until our demands are met.”

This was the statement in the “We will not be a party to this crime” petition, which was released on Jan. 11, 2016, with the signatures of 128,000 people following a call from the Academics for Peace.

The support for the campaign was influential and the call was valuable, but it wasn’t that rare for similar petitions to fall by the wayside before they reached the public.

A speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, ensured that the call reached a wide audience. Statements by universities against the petition, disciplinary probes against the signatories, legal probes, demands for resignations and detentions all followed Erdoğan’s remarks.

At the first hearing at the Istanbul 13th Court of Serious Crimes in April 2016, the prosecutor’s initial allegation that the signatories had conducted terrorist propaganda on the basis of Anti-Terror Law 7/2 was shifted to “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. As per regulations, the file was subsequently sent to the Justice Ministry for permission to begin a trial.

The ministry granted permission for the trial to go ahead in April 2018. Six months later, however, the prosecutor demanded in his final opinion regarding the case that the defendants be charged with conducting terrorist propaganda.

The first notice that a new phase would begin at the Çağlayan Courthouse reached the scholars in October 2017. The indictments prepared by prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt, all accusing the academics of conducting terrorist propaganda, were identical; only the names of the suspects changed.

Same accusations, same defenses, separate files

The initial hearings gave an idea of how the trials would proceed. The accusations were the same, the petition was the same but the files were separate. Still, hearings were held one after another in the same trial atmosphere. The lawyers copied the defense of one client for the next hearing, as did the prosecutors and the judges with their respective opinions and rulings. In the end, there was never much variation in the sentences.

The lawyers had a variety of demands, including the acquittal of their clients given the absence of any material evidence of a crime; the merger of the files with another case into four academics put on trial at the 13th Court of Serious Crimes; the merger of the files of the rest of the other academics apart from the four initial scholars (in the event that the previous demand was rejected); the submission of the file to the Justice Ministry given the high probability that a case would be opened on the basis of Article 301; a halt to the trial; the recusal of the judges, as well as an extension of the inquiry.

The chief judges were endlessly changing, but their questions were always the same: “Did you sign the petition?” “Where did it come from?” “Did you read it?” “Did you understand it?” “Why didn’t you make a call to the organization?” “If it were you, would you put it this way?” “Do you know Bese Hozat (of the PKK)?” “From whom did you get instructions?” The similarities in the judges’ questions could also be seen in their responses to the lawyers’ demands.

The demands for an immediate acquittal were definitely returned, the demands for more time for the defense were usually accepted, while the demands to merge all the files were only accepted by five courts, with the rest ruling against any merger “due to the high number of people tried, the probability that the trial process would be extended and the probability that the trial would exceed a reasonable duration.”

Some courts accepted the demand for an appeal to the Justice Ministry for trials falling under the scope of Article 301 for allegedly “insulting Turkishness,” but the demands for a recusal, a halt to the case and an extension of the inquiry were rejected.

It was usually hard to hear the prosecutors. They would usually give their opinions and final opinions very silently if they didn’t write them. Still, we had smartphones; after just a few hearings, the devices can start to do autocomplete given that all the opinions and requested punishments were identical anyway: “The nature of the imputed offense…”

The very first decision is separate cases occurred on April 9, 2018. The sentences for conducting terrorist propaganda were fixed at 15 months with penalty increases and remissions. The deferment of the announcement of the verdict, which basically entails a suspended sentence, was common but not universal, as the courts ruled in some cases “that they had not reached an opinion that the crime would not be repeated due to the lack of regret.”

It’s 15 months if judge says ‘good luck’

Later, a “routine” emerged in which some judges provided a hint about the upcoming sentences by saying “good luck” at the end of the hearings.

Yes, there were some cases of dissenting opinions, and one judge on the panel at the 13th Court of Serious Crimes even lodged a statement of opposition to the verdict made by the majority. The judge opposed the verdict because “the crime in question was not terrorist propaganda but tantamount to aiding the organization,” adding that the “moral elements of the crime did not occur.”

However, the December 2018 sentences of more than two years given to Gençay Gürsoy and Şebnen Korur Fincancı on the basis of new documents represented a departure from the “routine.”

As one can see, a departure from routine was not necessarily a welcome development. The feeling of “whatever I say, the verdict has already been decided” was as concrete as the wall. Under these conditions, probably the best thing to do was just to say your words in any case. This, in the end, is what the lawyers and academics are doing. Aren’t they concerned that these words will play a role in the verdicts? Yes, they are. Such concerns are even more overt when you are in a court that has just declared its verdict for people who have made a statement. But staying true to your word, even though you know that the verdict won’t change, is the sole remaining source of power.

Academics used such power while making statements that varied in accordance with their fields of expertise:

“I do not know whether what I say here today will have an effect on the trial process or not, considering that two panels of judges, including yours, have ruled on [sentences] in 15 previous cases.” (Reyda Ergün)

They mentioned the problems of the indictments:

“The indictment considers it evidence that our signatures create a cause and effect relation just because one incident came after another. There cannot be such evidence! Such an argument, which is based only on timing, is not valid; it leads us to reach false conclusions from true premises, and this is why we call such ways of thinking logical fallacies.” (Berna Kılınç)

They related the rights violations during the time they signed the petition:

“Before the document was signed on Jan. 11, 2016, many rights violations that were reported widely in the media and which were documented with images and international observers’ reports resulted in deep fissures in the conscience of society, a well as a polarization triggered by the political atmosphere. Together, these began to cause serious damage to social peace.” (Gülengül Altıntaş)

These statements were actually responses to the words of the panels’ chief judges, who said, “I have no information on that issue, I was in the eastern province of Kars at that time” or “Are you against the violence by the state to protect its sovereignty?”

“The Latin phrase ‘primum non nocere,’ the most important principle of doctors, has remained unchanged for 2,500 years and means “first, to do no harm.” … I think that the same principle should be valid for state governance. I think that an operation conducted by the state for the well-being of the people should not lead to deaths and human rights violations.” (Taner Gören)

They said they signed the petition to demand peace, without taking instructions from anybody and that they were addressing the government:

“I signed a document that used the phrase ‘to create a road map that would lead to a lasting peace’ exactly the way I quote it. Thus, I supported the call for an end to violence in a sustainable way. I think that claiming that such a call is tantamount to propaganda to promote violence not only contradicts the fundamental practice of justice but also the most basic rules of logic.”

(Zeynep Gambetti)

“The addressee of the petition was the government. I found it appropriate as a citizen of this country to direct my submission for a return to an environment of peace as seen during the Resolution Process to the government, which had organized that process in the past.” (Erdağ Aksel)

They also said that no “crime” had occurred while rejecting all the allegations:

“I believe that everybody has the right to peace and to express their demands in accordance with that.” (Fırat Erdoğmuş)

“This petition was a call for peace, and I expressed my thoughts and opinions on what happened in those days on the basis of Article 25 of the constitution. Because no crime was committed, I reject the totally baseless allegations against me and demand my acquittal.” (Meral Demirel)

“Demanding peace is not a crime. I do not accept your allegations.” (Şebnem Korur Fincancı)

And they also repeated their demands:

“Once again and persistently, I repeat my wish for steps toward the resolution of the Kurdish problem, moves to sustain peace and that more people should not die.” (Özdemir Aktan)

None of these statements have yet resulted in an acquittal. As of Dec. 29, 2018, verdicts have been handed down to 69 academics, 64 of whom have been sentenced to 15 months in jail, three to 18 months, one to two years and three months and another to 2.5 years.

But there was one acquittal — for Sedat Peker, the mafia leader who told academics that “We will let your blood flow in streams and then take a shower in your blood.”

But an acquittal for any of the academics in Çağlayan still looks unlikely, at least in the near future.

“Whatever I say, the verdict has already been decided” is something that lawyers and academics mention frequently at hearings, but academics continue to say their words.

Meanwhile, the courthouse in Çağlayan continues to witness great solidarity, persistence, truth and calls for peace.

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.