Muslim Times(Web Desk) – A Turkish court has begun the trial of 22 students from a prestigious university in Istanbul who are accused of spreading “terror propaganda” for their opposition to Turkey’s military moves in Syria.
Fourteen of the students have been in prison since their initial arrest in March, when police stormed dormitories at Bogazici University, sparking the anger of activists.
Scores of people gathered outside Caglayan, the main courthouse in Istanbul, as the trial got underway on Wednesday, carrying banners reading, “freedom for Bogazici” and “a right to education cannot be blocked.”
The students could face five years in prison if found guilty of spreading propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), their lawyer Doguscan Aydin Aygun said.
Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria’s northwestern region of Afrin on January 20 in a bid to eliminate the YPG, which Ankara views as a “terror” organization and the Syrian branch of the PKK, which has been fighting for an autonomous region inside Turkey since 1984.
The YPG forms the backbone of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a anti-Damascus militant group supported by Washington.
Turkish forces and allied militants in Syria seized Afrin from Kurdish forces in March after a two-month offensive that forced tens of thousands of people to flee. A day after the seizure of Afrin, a group of students opened a stand on the Bogazici campus, distributing sweets they called “Afrin delight” in memory of the Turkish troops killed in the operation.
Another group, however, carried a banner in a show of protest that read, “there’s nothing sweet about occupation and massacre.”
Ankara has repeatedly warned that it would prosecute those who oppose, criticize or misrepresent the operation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the opponents of the cross-border incursion as “traitors.”
Turkey’s prosecutors accuse the students of seeking to discredit the army and the state by depicting them as an “occupier” and an “illegitimate force that uses violence.”
Giving testimony in court, the students pleaded not guilty and denied chanting pro-PKK slogans.
“I didn’t praise violence or make terror propaganda,” Sukran Yaren Tuncer, one of the accused, told the magistrate. “I shouted slogans like ‘shoulder to shoulder against fascism’ and ‘no war, peace now’. They are universal slogans and chanted in every demo.”
Turkish authorities have detained hundreds of people during the Afrin operation on similar charges. The move has raised new concerns about freedom of speech in Turkey.