Turkey hands prison sentences to four scholars over peace memorandum

Four Turkish scholars, who in early 2016 signed a peace memorandum calling for the halting of military operations in Kurdish southeast, were handed prison sentences by an Istanbul court on Wednesday.

The prosecution sought prison sentences for the academics on charges of disseminating terrorist propaganda.

Academics Taylan Sahan Tarhan, Tuna Kuyucu, and Ilker Birbil were sentenced to 15 months in prison, while Nevin Zeynep Yelce received a sentence of 2 years and 6 months.

They were signatories of a petition titled “We will not be a party to this crime,” which protested the government’s military operations in southeastern Turkey. The initiative took place in early 2016 as the entire region plunged into an urban fight between Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and security forces. The fighting erupted after June 2015 parliamentary elections when a two-year-old fragile truce collapsed between the Turkish state and the militant group.

Academics for peace

After decades of fighting, in 2013, the ruling AK Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to terminate armed conflict with PKK. The group has launched a four-decade insurgency to carve up semi-autonomous zone for self-rule in southeastern Turkey.

A truce took effect after the government’s “peace process,” bringing an end to the fighting. As the Turkish authorities held talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to hammer out central pillars of a lasting deal, hopes for a breakthrough to finally seal peace emerged.

As part of the agreement, the PKK was supposed to pull out its fighters out of the country, but that process proved to be short-lived and inconclusive months after PKK commander Murat Karayilan’s truce announcement. Still, a lull, however tenuous it might have been, took hold in the region and hostilities largely ceased.

During that period, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmakers actively participated in the peace talks. On different occasions, a group of HDP delegation frequently visited Ocalan on Imrali, a prison island in the Marmara Sea.

But, things took a different turn when HDP, for the first time in the history of Kurdish political parties, succeeded to enter Parliament with a large number of lawmakers. That meant the end of ruling AKP’s parliamentary majority. When HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas openly opposed President Erdogan’s longstanding push for a shift to an executive presidential system, it created a rift between AKP and HDP.

The aftermath of June elections marked a return to clashes, this time in urban areas as PKK brought the war into cities. It also helped the AKP win the next election in November 2015 with the support of nationalist votes.

In January 2016, amidst this political climate, a group of academics came up with a new initiative called “Academics for Peace.”

But when scholars announced that they “will not be a party to this crime,” it sparked a backlash from the government. The academics expressed their opposition against the ongoing security operations in cities, citing the destruction of residential areas.

More than two thousand academics have so far signed the petition, and shortly after, were labeled as terrorists by President Erdogan.

In the wake of the failed coup of July 2016, hundreds of academics, who were signatories of the petition, have been fired from their posts with emergency decrees during the post-coup crackdown. Their passports have been revoked.  Subsequently, the majority of scholars face legal probes. So far now, tens of them received a different amount of prison sentences.

Academics who demanded peace between Turkey, Kurds receive jail sentences

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