Davis professor’s prosecution likely to be dropped as Turkish high court backs free speech

UC Davis professor Baki Tezcan in Istanbul with his eldest son
UC Davis professor Baki Tezcan in Istanbul with his eldest son Baki Tezcan

UC Davis professor Baki Tezcan will likely soon be free from charges brought against him by the Turkish government for signing a petition criticizing its army.

In 2016, the history professor joined more than 2,000 academics in signing a petition accusing the Turkish army of “massacring” Kurdish residents while fighting a Kurdish terrorist organization. The government has since indicted more than 700 signatories for “spreading terrorist propaganda.” Tezcan was likely the first Turkish American indicted.

On Friday, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled in 10 cases brought before it that the government has violated the signatories’ freedom of speech. That means the remaining cases still pending in lower courts – such as Tezcan’s – will likely be dropped, and cases that were already decided in lower courts will likely be reheard.

The Constitutional Court’s decision was close: 9-8. Though the court has 16 justices, its president has two votes. He voted in favor of the signatories – which surprised many academics, as he was appointed by Turkish President Tayyip Erodgan, who has led what many Turkish academics claim has been a “purge” of dissenting intellectuals.

The decision calls for the 10 cases to be sent back to the lower courts and retried. Tezcan’s case is not automatically dismissed. He said his lawyer will go to his next scheduled trial in October and argue for dropping the charges against him using the Constitutional Court’s decision.

Meanwhile, Tezcan, whose summer trip to Istanbul to resume research turned into a battle fighting for free speech with other signatories, is feeling celebratory. In late June, he flew to Turkey with an arrest warrant out for him due to the government’s charges against him, and he was immediately questioned on arrival. He then stood trial last week, defending academics’ rights.

“I didn’t come to Turkey to fight this, I came for other reasons, but my arrival also engaged me in this fight,” he said. “I can’t take credit because thousands of people were involved, but I’m happy to have pitched in.”

He credited Turkish professor Fusun Ustel, one of the 10 academics whose cases the Constitutional Court ruled on. Ustel chose to accept an immediate jail sentence early in her case, allowing her to appeal to the highest court faster, according to Turkish media reports.

Tezcan had been anxiously awaiting the court’s decision throughout Friday.

“I was texting my lawyer all day long, checking the news every minute,” he said. “I texted him at 5 p.m. local time asking ‘did you hear anything?’ and right then, I got a local news notification that the decision was out.”

Though Tezcan is celebrating now, he feels that the fight for Turkish academics’ free speech is far from over. Most signatories were based in Turkey, and hundreds have lost their jobs in universities due to their signing of the petition. Tezcan said their struggle to get their jobs back will be much more difficult.

“This is a major victory for freedom of speech in Turkey, but it is not a conclusive thing,” he said. “It’s not a conclusion of a long struggle, but rather the first victory in a struggle that has to continue for those people who have been purged and have lost their jobs.”

Halil Yenigun, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University who had lost his job in a Turkish University for signing the petition, echoed Tezcan’s sentiments.

“I feel a lot more optimistic,” he said. “But this is just a victory in one of the battles.”

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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.