In Turkey, even good news is bittersweet these days.
An Istanbul court ruled on Friday that four Turkish academics on pre-trial detention charged with spreading terrorist propaganda should be released, only to be investigated under new charges of “publicly denigrating the Turkish nation”.
Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya and Kivanc Ersoy were arrested on March 19 and Meral Camci on April 1, for signing a petition, calling on the Turkish government to end use of force in the southeast against the mainly Kurdish population and to seek a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
Several other academics, among more than one thousand signatories, have faced suspensions and dismissals.
The detentions have drawn strong criticism for their chilling effect on academic freedom in Turkey, as well as free speech in general.
Like several other high-profile court cases and convictions in recent years, the prosecutor’s arguments and the evidence presented to the court were flawed.
As one of my sources, present at the trial put it, “the prosecutor really struggled to build his case”. First, he asked for continuation of detention; a few minutes later, he hastily recommended their release.
Another of my sources, commenting from the courtroom, has described it as a very “peculiar turn of justice”. The prosecutor, having failed to support his charges of “spreading terrorist propaganda” with credible evidence, has asked the court to seek permission of the Ministry of Justice to launch an investigation on charges of “denigrating Turkishness”.
The court granted the request for the four to be released, pending permission from the Justice Ministry to launch a new investigation.
Providing the Ministry grants the permission that the prosecutor seeks, the court case will resume on 27 September, under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, one of the most repressive and antiquated laws in Turkey.
Article 301 has been used to prosecute hundreds of people, including some well-known names such as the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and novelist Elif Safak.
The Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted three times under Article 301 and was found guilty of “denigrating Turkishness”. This made him a target of nationalists, before being assassinated in 2007.
In 2008, the AKP government amended Article 301, limiting the number of cases that could be brought under it. Despite repeated international condemnation of it, the law was not repealed but amended, by introducing an authorisation of the Minister of Justice before prosecutors could initiate proceedings.
The wording of Article 301 was slightly changed. The authorization by the Justice Ministry may have limited the numbers of cases launched under it but it also made it more open to political manipulation.
Civil society groups have been highlighting the article’s restrictions on free speech. If the Justice Ministry gives the go-ahead for another trial, we will all see how superficial and insufficient the safeguards brought in 2008 have been, and how irresistible the influence of the executive over judiciary has become.
This post is also available in: Turkish