Growing fears for free speech in Turkey

Erdogan regime faces criticism for putting academics and journalists on trial

ISTANBUL • Four Turkish academics went on trial yesterday for "terrorist propaganda" in the latest in a series of court cases that have highlighted growing restrictions on free speech under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Riot police stood guard outside the courthouse in central Istanbul ahead of the academics' trial. Meanwhile, two journalists accused of divulging state secrets also headed into a closed-door court for the third hearing of their espionage trial.

Protesters held up placards reading "Freedom for the academics" and "Freedom for the pencils" as about 200 people turned out to support the accused.

Opposition Members of Parliament joined the rally as two armoured police trucks equipped with water cannon stood by.

The academics are being prosecuted for signing a petition - along with more than 1,000 colleagues and supporters - denouncing the government's military operations against Kurdish rebels in the country's south-east.

Turkey is waging an all-out offensive against the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party , with military operations and curfews aimed at flushing out rebels from several south-eastern urban centres.

The petition urged Ankara to halt "its deliberate massacres and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region".

An infuriated President Erdogan said the dons had fallen into a "pit of treachery".

The four scholars are accused of engaging in "terrorist propaganda" and "inciting hatred and enmity" by signing the petition and making a statement along the same lines on March 10 - a day before the petition was published.

If convicted, Esra Mungan Gursoy, Meral Camci, Kivanc Ersoy and Muzaffer Kaya face up to 71/2 years in prison, according to Academics for Peace, the organisation behind the contested petition.

The defendants have been held in high-security prisons in Istanbul since their arrests last month.

Turkey is waging an all-out offensive against the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party , with military operations and curfews aimed at flushing out rebels from several south-eastern urban centres. But Kurdish activists say dozens of civilians have died as a result of the use of excessive force.

The decision to haul scholars and journalists to court has deepened unease over freedom of expression under the increasingly autocratic Mr Erdogan.

The United States and European Union have already expressed concern over the trial of two journalists from the Cumhuriyet newspaper for publishing articles alleging that the government delivered weapons to Islamists in Syria.

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of leading opposition daily Cumhuriyet, and his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul face life in prison over a story accusing the government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms to rebels in Syria.

Almost 2,000 people have been prosecuted for "insulting" Mr Erdogan since the former premier became President in August 2014, Turkey's justice minister said last month.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Growing fears for free speech in Turkey'. Print Edition | Subscribe