Turkey Pulse

Turkish court releases students jailed on ‘terror propaganda’ charges

Article Summary
The trial of 22 Turkish students opened today with their release, though they still face terror charges for participating in a protest against Turkey's military incursion in Syria.

The remaining 14 students from Istanbul’s liberal Bogazici University who were charged with spreading “terror propaganda” for protesting Turkey’s military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish enclave Afrin were freed pending trial by the judge in their first courtroom hearing today.

The youths were detained and arrested after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called them “terrorists in the guise of students.”

"At last our children from Bogazici have been freed. Now it's the turn of the other students. We will bring an end to the darkness in Turkey, where nearly 70,000 students are in jail," tweeted Nesrin Nas, an opposition politician observing the trial.

The students had been held in pre-trial detention since March, when police raided their dorms and hauled them away. The accusations stem from their actions — chanting slogans and unfurling banners — against a group of students who supported Turkey’s campaign against the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units. A brief scuffle ensued.

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The case against 22 Bogazici students highlights the stifling authoritarianism gripping Turkey since the 2016 coup attempt that has seen tens of thousands of Turks, including academics, journalists and human rights activists, jailed on thin evidence purportedly linking them to terror and subversion against the state. Hundreds of academics are also being prosecuted for signing a petition in January 2016 for criticizing the army’s heavy-handed methods in the mainly Kurdish southeast region.

They face up to five years in prison if convicted as charged under Turkey’s broad anti-terror law. The charges leveled against them in the prosecutor’s indictment include seeking to portray the Turkish Armed Forces as “illegal” and “violent” “occupiers,” “chanting slogans” and “applauding in protest” with “aggressive intent.”

Yesterday, two youths were arrested in Istanbul’s Gazi neighborhood after spray-painting “HDP” and “umut,” Turkish for “hope,” on a wall. The HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) is the country’s largest pro-Kurdish bloc whose presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, is campaigning for the June 24 elections from jail. The pair had also depicted an electric kettle accompanied with, “There’s a message from the kettle.” Demirtas uses a kettle to make tea in his cell, but it frequently breaks, according to jokey messages relayed via his lawyers on Twitter. The youths, Saadettin Kose and Birol Tutus, will likely face charges of engaging in terrorist propaganda.

Outside Istanbul’s Caglayan courthouse, where the case of the Bogazici 22 is being heard, hundreds of sympathizers gathered to show solidarity. Speaking on behalf of the families of the jailed students, parent Bulent Yilmaz said, “These children are not only our children. These children are the children of those in Turkey who want peace and democracy and are fighting for democracy.”

The trial got off to a noisy start when the defense complained about the lack of space. Half of the three rows of seats were taken by security officers and defendants, Al-Monitor contributor Ayla Jean Yackley observed in a tweet. “The students' voices are cracking with nervousness, one almost started to cry, apologizing for being 'emotional,'” Yackley added.

One the defendants, Zulkuf Erkol, said that he had been cramming in the library when he heard noise, went to see what was going on and joined the protest. “I chanted the slogan ‘unity against fascism,’ but I don’t believe this amounts to terrorist propaganda,” Erkol said, adding, “I was tortured in police custody.” The independent online news platform Bianet reported that student Yusuf Noyan Ozturk, who also denies any wrongdoing, said that before he was transferred to pretrial detention, “I spent 14 days in police custody. I faced violence and threats. I was told my family and I awaited dark days.”

The trial will resume Oct. 3.

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Found in: turkish intervention in syria, protests in turkey, trial, turkey protests, universities, student demonstrations

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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