By Sofia Sideridou (intern at the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University)
The Human Rights Centre of Ghent University (Belgium) and the Scholars at Risk Network (New York, U.S.), have jointly submitted a third party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights in the cases of Telek, Şar and Kivilcim v. Turkey. The cases concern three Turkish academics complaining about the cancellation of their passports as part of the broader crackdown on the signatories of the 2016 “Academics for Peace Petition.” In our third party intervention, we invite the Court to reaffirm its prior statements related to the protection of academic freedom and explicitly recognize the importance thereof, particularly at a time that massive violations take place in Turkey. A brief overview of the facts of the case and the main arguments are provided hereunder.
The applications were filed by three Turkish academics, two of whom were research assistants working for the Yıldız Technical University. The third applicant was an associate professor at Istanbul University. All of them had signed the “Academics for Peace Petition”, which was published in January 2016 and called for a negotiated solution to the military conflict between the Turkish State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Shortly after its publication, criminal proceedings were initiated against a large number of its signatories. The situation got worse on 20 July 2016, when the Turkish Government, in response to the coup d’état attempted a few days before, declared a state of emergency and started to issue emergency decrees with the force of law. All three applicants were dismissed by decree from their academic posts and also had their passports cancelled, effectively barring them from pursuing an academic career in and outside Turkey. The applicants’ individual applications before the Constitutional Court had been declared inadmissible for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies, namely the State of Emergency Appeals Commission.
In Strasbourg, the applicants complain, under Article 8 of the Convention, that their rights to freedom of movement and to respect for their private life were violated on account of the cancellation of their passports and they also hold, under Article 13, that there were no effective domestic remedies at their disposal. The first two applicants also complain under Article 2 of the Protocol No. 1 of the Convention that they cannot pursue their doctoral studies abroad, while the third applicant, relying on Article 6 of the Convention, claims that her requests to renew her passport remained unanswered and she was thereby deprived of her right of access to court.
Our third party intervention first identifies the significant pressures on academic freedom in Turkey. We give an overview of the widespread and systemic violations following the January 2016 publication of the abovementioned petition, which worsened after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The higher education sector was a direct target of this crackdown, with thousands of academics being dismissed, banned from travelling abroad, detained and prosecuted. We hold that the imposed measures had serious consequences both for the individuals concerned and for the entire higher education sector, undermining the quality and scope of research and teaching.
In the second section, we seek to highlight the cross-cutting nature of academic freedom, which encompasses several diverse fundamental rights (freedom of thought, opinion, expression, association, movement, travel and instruction, liberty and security) and to explicitly set out the importance of academic freedom in all its dimensions by citing the relevant sources of international law, including at the United Nations an Council of Europe level, and multiple European Constitutions.
In the following part, we recall that the Court has already recognized the importance of academic freedom in its case law and has underlined the academics’ freedom to freely express their views as academics, distribute knowledge and impart information. It is argued that the term “public watchdogs”, granted to journalists and NGO’s, equally applies to academics and the higher education space. Higher education institutions regularly serve “the function of creating various platforms for public debate” (e.g. Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary), by public events and through appearances in media. Moreover, scholars train people to become self-informing and critically thinking members of a democratic society, which should considered as an essential element of informed public debate. We, therefore, invite the Court to reaffirm and more fully articulate the express recognition and protection of academic freedom, comprising both the individual and institutional dimension. In particular, the Court is encouraged to acknowledge not only the detrimental impact on the scholars directly targeted, but also the resulting pervasive chilling effect on Turkey’s higher education sector as a whole.
Finally , we submit that the Court should go beyond the provisions of the Convention raised by the applicants and as “the master of characterization” to be given in law, examine the facts of the case under the Article 10 dimension, in isolation or in conjunction with Article 8 and Article 2 Protocol 1. We strongly hold that the imposed measures to the applicants should be considered as an “interference” with Article 10 of the Convention, since they could stifle the spreading of ideas and repress the exercise of freedom of expression.
 For the Human Rights Centre the team consisted of Bella Mankieva, Ivy Rahedi, Joe Finnerty and Sofia Sideridou, under the supervision of Dr. Laurens Lavrysen.