Middle East

Turkey’s Academics for Peace punished for anti-war protest

Zafer Guzey is employed three days a week at a studio for string instruments. Sitting hunched over on a wooden stool, the 49-year-old works on a fingerboard with stoic calm and instinctual finesse. He drills, sands and glues with meticulous precision; a viola gradually emerges from various types of wood. Last year he won an international prize for “the viola with the most beautiful aesthetics and sound,” Guzey says, proudly quoting the jury’s verdict.

As well as crafting instruments, he also opened a cafe that serves cig kofte, strongly spiced red balls made with bulgur that are a delicacy in Turkey. Guzey says that work could easily be combined with violin making because he can decorate the cafe walls with his instruments. But Guzey is neither a violin-maker nor a restaurateur by trade. For 21 years, he was a professor at Anadolu University in the northwestern city of Eskisehir.

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It was about a year ago when Guzey lost his job at the university, after signing a government-critical petition stating “we will not be part of this crime” back in January 2016. “First my employment contract was not extended, then I was dismissed by an emergency decree,” says Guzey.

Zafer Güzey (DW/B. Karakas)Dismissed from his university job, Guzey now makes musical instruments

Dismissals by ’emergency decree’

Many of his 2,200 colleagues who also signed the Academics for Peace petition in 2016 faced similar consequences.

The petition, which was initiated by 128 professors, criticized a major offensive by the Turkish military in the country’s southeast, home to a large Kurdish population. That offensive was launched in the summer of 2015 and sparked violent clashes with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish government considers a terrorist organization. Many civilians also suffered as a result of the operation and the government imposed a months-long curfew.

“We will not be part of this crime. We demand that the state end its violence against its citizens. As academics in this country, we declare that we will not be accomplices in this massacre,” stated the group.

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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reaction was unforgiving. “We will certainly not be seeking permission from these would-be academics,” he said. “They should know their limits.”

Even the Turkish judiciary did not stand to gain much from the operation. After the coup attempt in July 2016, the government dismissed thousands of state employees by emergency decree, claiming they were suspected of being connected to “terrorist organizations.”

Many signatories of the academics’ petition were affected, facing dismissal, interrogation and even trial. By December 2017, 549 academics had lost their jobs, disciplinary proceedings had been initiated against 505, and 691 were on trial. Thirty-two were sentenced to up to three years imprisonment.

Were the court proceedings legal?

Political scientist Fusun Ustel from the Galatasaray University was the first signatory to be sentenced by an Istanbul court, receiving 1 year and 3 months behind bars.

Prof. Füsun Üstel (DW/B. Karakas)Academic Fusun Ustel was jailed after signing the petition

Academics involved in the peace movement argue that the proceedings against them were not carried out in accordance with the law. “The cases are utter fiction. We are innocent. The trials are a disgrace to our society,” says Ibrahim Kaboglu, a constitutional lawyer who was also dismissed from his faculty after registering his protest.

Another lawyer, Ali Soydan, who represents 20 of the accused academics, is also skeptical about the proceedings. The charges were identical for all his clients — accusations pertaining to terrorism —although the penalties differed widely.

Today, the dismissed academics are pursuing a variety of vocations in order to survive; those who did not receive a travel ban have gone into exile.

No legal proceedings have yet been brought against violin-maker and restaurateur Zafer Guzey. It is not clear whether he will ever be able to go back to the university and resume his old profession. But despite facing an uncertain future and being separated from his students, Guzey remains optimistic. “Life goes on, and in the end, I will definitely return,” he says.

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