UC Davis professor faces trial in Turkey as prosecution of vocal scholars reaches U.S.

Baki Tezcan faces a trial in Istanbul for signing a petition three years ago criticizing the Turkish army’s conduct toward Kurdish residents.
Baki Tezcan faces a trial in Istanbul for signing a petition three years ago criticizing the Turkish army’s conduct toward Kurdish residents. Baki Tezcan

With an arrest warrant hanging over his head from the Turkish government, Baki Tezcan, a professor at UC Davis, arrived in Istanbul last week with his wife and two sons.

As the family walked from the aircraft, Tezcan saw that officers had set up a passport control station at the gate.

“I remember turning to my wife and saying, ‘I think this is because of me.’”

He was right. Immediately upon his arrival, Tezcan was separated from his family and taken away to a courthouse for questioning.

Tezcan, an associate professor of history at UC Davis, is among more than 2,000 academics who signed a petition in January 2016 accusing the Turkish army of engaging in a “deliberate and planned massacre” of Kurdish residents. Once the petition circulated widely, Turkey began charging the signatories, claiming that they spread propaganda from a Kurdish group that Turkey deems a terrorist organization.

Among the hundreds of signatories charged, most of whom live in Turkey and Europe, Tezcan is likely the first Turkish American charged.

Now released from custody and conducting research in Istanbul, Tezcan will stand trial on July 18. Most signatories who have been tried received suspended judgments, meaning if they stay out of legal trouble for five years, their case will be dropped. A handful of signatories who were tried, however, received sentences of imprisonment.

In returning to Turkey, Tezcan has thrust himself into an ongoing fight over freedom of expression in Turkey, where President Tayyip Erdogan has faced international criticism for criminalizing dissent. Tezcan’s trial comes amid a stinging political defeat for Erdogan with the election last week of a new mayor of Istanbul, ending 25 years of power for Erdogan’s party in the major city.

The Turkish embassy has not responded to requests for comment.

When asked about Tezcan’s situation, a U.S State Department representative said in a statement, “The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. We stand ready to provide all appropriate assistance.” The spokesperson did not provide further details due to privacy concerns.

UC Davis declined to comment.

Events leading up to the 2016 petition stemmed from the breakdown of peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group Turkey deems a terrorist organization. The petition claims that as conflict between the government and PKK escalated, the Turkish army attacked Kurdish residents “with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime.”

An Amnesty International report published around the time the petition spread says that both the Turkish army and the PKK launched violent attacks. The report notes that “the mass deployment of [Turkish] security forces to [Kurdish-majority areas] resulted in an intensification of clashes and, according to local lawyers and activists, the killings of scores of unarmed residents.”

After the petition spread, Erdogan accused the signatories of treason and his administration began investigating the signatories.

When Tezcan first received his indictment in May 2018, he was “a little surprised,” he said in an interview. “I knew that I would receive it eventually, but I did not think they would reach signatories abroad before they finished charging the signatories inside Turkey.”

The Turkish court overseeing Tezcan’s case asked the U.S. Justice Department to question Tezcan on its behalf, he said. The Justice Department denied the request in a letter, saying that the First Amendment “prohibits criminal prosecution of speech except in … situations in which the speech comprises a true threat or incites imminent violence,” referring to Tezcan’s signature as a mode of speech.

After receiving the Justice Department’s letter, the Turkish court in January 2019 issued an arrest warrant for Tezcan.

At the airport, once officers checked his passport, they took him to a courthouse where he was questioned briefly by a judge, he said. The judge released him, and Tezcan will stand trial on July 18.

Tezcan’s wife and younger son will return to California in early July. He will continue his research in Istanbul until early August, when he plans to return with his older son. He said he hopes his trial will not result in a decision that may keep him in Turkey longer.

At least one other Turkish American signatory has received an indictment since Tezcan was charged. Asli Igsiz, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, received an indictment in May and an arrest warrant shortly after, she said.

Academics for Peace, the group of academics that organized the publication of the 2016 petition, has been tracking indictments made against the signatories. According to its count, as of Monday, 765 signatories have been charged. None who have been charged have been acquitted.

Of the signatories who have been charged, 203 have been tried. Among them, 163 received a suspended judgment, meaning if they stay out of legal trouble for five years, their case will be dropped; four received deferred sentences, meaning if they stay out of legal trouble for two to three years, they won’t be imprisoned but the sentence will stay on their criminal record; and 36 were convicted and sentenced to immediate imprisonment.

Halil Yenigun, a postdoctoral fellow in Islamic studies at Stanford University who was dismissed from a Turkish University for signing the petition, said he sees Erdogan’s prosecution of signatories as part of a ”purge of academics who are not loyal to him.”

Academics for Peace estimates that hundreds of signatories who were employed in Turkish universities have been fired for signing the petition.

Howard Eissesnstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University, said the stream of prosecutions “speaks to the ways in which Turkish government has criminalized political dissent, and has used extremely broad definitions of terror to prosecute and punish political dissent.”

“Each prosecution should be overturned because, legally, [the signatories] were expressing their political convictions and they have the freedom to do so,” said Eissenstat, a fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a research organization. While higher courts “theoretically” should be overturning the prosecutions, he said, he’s not seeing that happen.

“The politicization of the courts has made people dubious of whether that will actually occur.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Tezcan’s role at UC Davis; he is an associate professor.

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.