UC Davis professor arrested in Turkey recalls experiences

UC Davis professor arrested in Turkey recalls experiences

Photo Credits: BAKI TEZCAN / COURTESY

Professor Baki Tezcan considers himself lucky compared to Turkish academics who have lost their jobs in government crackdown

Following a brief arrest in Istanbul, Turkey this summer, Associate Professor of History Baki Tezcan has safely returned to campus. Tezcan, whose research focuses on the early modern Ottoman period, spoke to The California Aggie about his experiences navigating the Turkish justice system. 

In Jan. 2016, Tezcan signed a petition that sharply criticized the Turkish government’s actions towards Kurds, an ethnic minority in the region. His indictment came in May 2018 and, when he traveled to Turkey in June of 2019 to conduct research and to visit family members, he knew he would be arrested upon arrival. 

Tezcan said he had reasons to return to Turkey despite knowing that he would likely be arrested for his decision to sign a petition openly criticizing the Turkish government. 

“I needed to follow publications, be in touch with colleagues, continue my research,” Tezcan said. “And also, I didn’t want to be bullied [by the Turkish government], you know? I don’t think that what I did was wrong and so I thought I should be able to go there and do my share in asserting that what I did was nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be defensive about. That was also part of the reason I chose to go even though I knew there were going to be some troubles.”

The petition Tezcan signed was authored on the heels of a turbulent year for Turkey, during which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had lost too many votes in his AKP (Justice and Development Party) to maintain a parliamentary majority. The ceasefire between the Turkish and Kurdish armies collapsed after Erdogan’s government issued a crackdown in the Southeast, following the alleged discovery of trenches built by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). 

Security operations began in “around 30 urban areas as well as rural areas throughout South-East Turkey,” according to a 2017 UN (United Nations) report. The report said that this “allegedly resulted in a number of persons being killed, displaced or disappeared.” Erdogan’s government imposed curfews in the area, and the calamity was reflected in the displacement of 335,000 residents of Southeastern Turkey, many of whom were Kurds. 

Rebuffing attempts to form a coalition government, Erdogan called for reelection in Nov. 2015, after which he regained the parliamentary majority. In was at this time that the government began calling for the arrests of critics and dissidents — academics like Tezcan were targeted by the government. A failed coup in July 2016 only engendered further political and military instability. 

The Turkish government, which accused the Academics for Peace petition signatories of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” failed to persuade Department of Justice officials in the U.S. to interrogate Tezcan, so they took matters into their own hands when he arrived in Istanbul. 

Tezcan’s Turkish lawyer tried to have the arrest warrant lifted, but to no avail. Tezcan also notified the coordination committee of Academics for Peace of the warrant for his arrest. According to Tezcan, his lawyer said that “the purpose of the arrest wasn’t to send [him] to jail but to make [him] go to court.” Three colleagues appeared at the Istanbul airport to show their solidarity for him, and his arrest upon entering the airport transpired peacefully. 

“The [police] first took me to a building,” Tezcan recalled. “They were very courteous and respectful, they didn’t touch me — no body search. They asked me to sign papers about the body search and then the next building was at the police center in the airport and they took mugshots and fingerprints. They were plainclothes police officers. I think they were probably from the anti-terrorism team.” 

The police officers then took Tezcan to a hospital, where he received a clean bill of health. 

“I think it’s part of the procedure to show that you haven’t been tortured,” Tezcan said.

The officers then accompanied him to court, which was closed to the public; Tezcan described it as an “after-hours court.” Despite the arrest, Tezcan considers himself lucky. 

“The court was presided over by a more understanding judge than the judge who presides over the court to which my case was assigned,” he said. 

The courts often handle cases differently, Tezcan said, and some of the signatories’ trials were prolonged as a result of this. 

While the majority of the signatories whose cases were closed received 15-month sentences that they were unlikely to serve, Tezcan remained concerned about the possibility of a two-and-a-half year sentence, which would prevent him from receiving the probation that a shorter sentence would offer. Still, defendants don’t necessarily have to serve time right away and are permitted to appeal their cases. 

Tezcan pointed out, though, that many people are put in jail indefinitely as they wait for their cases to come to trial. 

“I was not so much troubled by the possibility of a jail sentence because I was thinking I could go back to the U.S. and simply avoid going to Turkey and avoid getting in jail,” Tezcan said. “I knew that the case would be overturned at the European Court of Human Rights because [it] was ridiculous. But I was really worried about travel restrictions, about not being able to return, about having to be smuggled out in a boat or something.”

At the trial, Tezcan brought a written statement to the judge, hoping “to keep the tension low.” He asked if the judge wanted the statement read out loud, but the judge said no.

“I wrote something very well-spoken and direct without any self-censorship, except for a few sentences that my lawyer insisted I take out for protecting me,” Tezcan said. “Presenting it [in written form] allowed me to keep the tension low during the trial. I even asked [the judge] whether he wanted to read it and he said no. He decided that I didn’t have to appear in the next court session and that I could go. It freed me from having to be there and he didn’t put any travel restrictions.”

Now, the Constitutional Court, the highest court in Turkey, has decided that the sentencing of the signatories was an impeachment on individual rights and liberties and has overturned the lower courts’ decisions. Since the beginning of this judicial year, these lower courts have been dismissing the signatories’ cases. As of Sept. 17, the courts have acquitted 171 of the accused individuals. But the atmosphere is still fraught for professors living and working in Turkey — following the July 2016 coup, Erdogan’s government began issuing “summary dismissals” of academics who criticized his rule. 

“Private universities in Turkey don’t have tenure and they can dismiss people much more easily,” Tezcan said. “The public universities also find ways of dismissing some.” 

Due to changes in the Turkish legal process after the coup, many of these professors are struggling to return to work. Being dismissed by governmental decree also prevents professors from receiving retirement benefits; as a result, Tezcan said, some have taken early retirement preemptively. 

“In the dismissals [that the universities issued] it wasn’t mentioned why they were being dismissed and as a result [professors] have to fight an uphill battle,” he said. “As far as we understand, [Turkish] university administrations are given a blank check and can send [lists of names to the government]. Some administrators are decent and some use it as a chance to get rid of people whose political positions they don’t like or who are outspoken for civil rights. It turned into a witch hunt.”

Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, a visiting postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University’s Islamic Studies program who was fired from a Turkish university for his involvement in signing the petition, concurs. 

“Moments after Erdogan attacked us in his speech in January 2016, right after the release of our Peace Petition, I was called by my university administration and invited for a meeting to explain myself, my motives for signing the petition, which ended up with my suspension in a couple of days,” Yenigün said via email. 

“Eventually, while the investigation was pending, I was attacked on two newspaper columns by a journalist who is known by the Turkish public opinion as an ‘attack dog’ working for the government with an amazing ability to get his targets fired from their jobs immediately,” Yenigün said. “Indeed, I was dismissed the very next business day.” 

Yenigün said that Erdogan used the petition as an “excuse” to continue his “purge” of dissident academics in the public sphere. Yenigün also wrote that he had found sympathy in the U.S. for his situation, but that some American universities maintain financial connections to Turkey and that these universities “have made efforts to keep their money flowing by simply ignoring [my] colleagues and [our] situation.” 

Yenigün believes this is largely due to the donor system in the U.S. 

“There are also some academics who wanted to keep their good relations with the pro-Erdogan academic officials in Turkey so they have kept silent and they continued to receive their invitations to Turkey,” he explained. 

Yenigün does not plan to return to Turkey in the near future due to the potential risk of “detention orders” and the struggles that professors there continue to face. 

Indeed, some of the dismissed professors have left academia entirely, while some, like Yenigün, have gone abroad. 

“I know personally people who lost their jobs, one of my generation moved out of academia altogether, one moved to a publishing job and one went to the U.S. and felt alienated and is now doing city tours in Istanbul,” Tezcan said. “Even though this story sounds like a beautiful story that ends nicely for me, it doesn’t end nicely for my colleagues.” 

Tezcan is waiting for an upcoming court date in Turkey, at which time his lawyer will ask for his case to be officially dismissed. It remains unclear why the Constitutional Court decided to begin the acquittals.

“Was it due to an instruction from Erdogan that it has been enough?” Yenigün asked in his email. “Has it been costly for Turkey’s diplomatic relations and they decided to stop it here? Or was it an act of defiance on the part of the judiciary once they saw Erdogan is losing his grip over the society now after losing Istanbul and Ankara among many other cities? It is hard to tell at this point.”

Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — campus@theaggie.org

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Tezcan’s lawyer who tried to lift his arrest warrant was from the ALCU. The lawyer was actually a Turkish lawyer not affiliated with the ALCU. The Aggie regrets this error. Additionally, the article has been edited to clarify that Tezcan asked the judge if he would like Tezcan to read his statement out loud in court, but the judge said no.