On trial for criticizing Turkish army, UC Davis professor defends freedom of speech

Baki Tezcan is an associate professor of history at UC Davis.
Baki Tezcan is an associate professor of history at UC Davis. Courtesy of Baki Tezcan

Facing charges for signing a petition criticizing the Turkish army, UC Davis professor Baki Tezcan stood in front of an Istanbul judge on Thursday, defending his signature and, more broadly, Turkish academics’ right to free speech.

“I chose to pursue an academic career, which is based on independent research,” he said in a written defense submitted to the judge and sent to media outlets.

“Because,” he continued, “it is a profession that I could practice without receiving instructions from anyone.”

Tezcan, one of more than 2,000 academics who signed a petition in 2016 accusing the Turkish army of massacring Kurdish civilians in its conflicts with a Kurdish terrorist organization, is the latest of more than 700 signatories to stand trial over charges of “spreading terrorist propaganda.”

In the series of prosecutions by the Turkish government, most of which have targeted scholars who live in Turkey and Europe, Tezcan is likely the first Turkish American charged and the first to stand trial.

At the end of Thursday’s trial, which fell on the second to last day of Turkey’s judicial session, the judge decided to postpone a verdict until October and exempt Tezcan from appearing in future court sessions.

The judge’s postponement of a verdict comes as Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan has received international criticism for attempting to quell political dissent. It also comes as relations between Turkey and the U.S. have intensified: After Turkey recently began purchasing Russian weapons, the U.S. announced on Wednesday that it will cancel the sale of fighter jets to Turkey.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. tells protesters on Wednesday that Turkish President Tayip Erdogan should not be invited back to the United States after Erdogan’s armed security guards clashed with protesters in May 2017.

Tezcan had arrived in Istanbul last month to resume ongoing research. But, with an arrest warrant out for him due to his absence from earlier trials, he was immediately separated from his family upon arrival and detained for questioning. On Thursday, he returned to the courtroom, delivering a rebuttal to his indictment and an affirmation of academic freedom.

Tezcan said in an interview that while he could have chosen not to provide any remarks on Thursday as he had already answered questions when he was detained upon arriving in Turkey last month, he “couldn’t really be comfortable with pulling back” in the trial.

In his defense, Tezcan cited cases in which both the Constitutional Court – Turkey’s equivalent of the U.S.’s Supreme Court – and the European Court of Human Rights ruled that criticisms of the Turkish government were not in violation of the Turkish Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case decided by the Turkish Constitutional Court concerned a teacher who condemned the Turkish army’s conduct toward Kurdish residents on live television. The Turkish Constitutional Court ruled against the government’s charges that the teacher was aiding terrorism.

“Statements that address the social and individual problems associated with the government’s legitimate struggle against a terrorist organization – even when the statements are entirely subjective – cannot by themselves be considered as expressions of thought that make it possible to inform or incite those prepared to commit acts of terror, that increase the risk of committing these crimes,” the ruling said.

Several cases concerning the 2016 petition’s signatories are pending in the Turkish Constitutional Court. If the Constitutional Court rules to dismiss those cases, then all cases against the signatories in lower courts – including Tezcan’s – could also be dismissed.

However, the current judge overseeing Tezcan’s case could make a decision before that happens. Most signatories in Tezcan’s situation have received a suspended judgment. This means if they stay out of legal trouble for five years, their cases will be dropped. Several have been sentenced to imprisonment.

Tezcan said that though he can’t be sure of what will happen, he is “hopeful of a good outcome.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the timing of Turkey’s judicial session; Thursday was the second to last day of the judicial session.

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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.