People demonstrate outside the Caglayan courthouse on June 6, 2018 in Istanbul with banners reading "Freedom for Bogazici" as a trial opens today of 21 students from Bogazici University described by Turkey's President as "terrorists" after they opposed the Turkish military operation in Syria launched in January 2018. - AFP

ISTANBUL: Twenty-two students from a prestigious Istanbul university went on trial yesterday over a campus protest against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's military campaign in Syria, bitterly rejecting the charges they had spread "terror" propaganda. Fourteen of the students have been held in jail since their initial detention in March when police stormed students' dormitories at Bogazici University, in a case that has outraged activists.

Dozens gathered outside the main Istanbul courthouse as the trial got underway, unfurling banners reading "Freedom for Bogazici" and "A right to education cannot be blocked". The accused face jail terms of up to five years if convicted on charges of propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Doguscan Aydin Aygun, lawyer for the students, told AFP. Turkey earlier this year successfully carried out a major incursion into the Afrin region of northern Syria with allied Syrian rebels. The offensive ousted the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Ankara brands a terror group and branch of the PKK.

A day after Afrin was taken, a group of students opened a stand on the campus handing out sweets they dubbed "Afrin delight" in memory of the Turkish soldiers killed in the operation. But another group unfurled a banner with the words "There's nothing sweet about occupation and massacre," in a show of protest. Erdogan then slammed the anti-war students as "terrorists". Turkish prosecutors accuse the students of seeking to discredit the army and the state by portraying them as an "occupier" and as an "illegitimate force that uses violence".

'Taking her home'

Giving testimony in court, the students rejected the charges and argued shouting slogans against the government or in favor of promoting peace had nothing to do with the PKK. "I didn't praise violence or make terror propaganda," accused student Sukran Yaren Tuncer told the judge. "I shouted slogans like 'Shoulder to shoulder against fascism' and 'No war, peace now'. They are universal slogans and chanted in every demo."

Another defendant, Sevde Ozturk, added: "Some slogans were shouted but they can only be seen as political criticism." "I reject being stigmatized as a terrorist just because I chanted peace slogans," she told the court. Some of the students also accused police of beating them in detention. Authorities detained hundreds of people during the Afrin operation on terror propaganda charges for criticizing the operation, raising new concerns about freedom of speech in Turkey.

Founded in the 19th century as Robert College, Bogazici University is considered a bastion of secular and Western-orientated education in Turkey. Parents of the students attending the trial said that their children were innocent and their education was being unfairly disrupted. Tevfik Tulay, father of arrested third-year engineering student Uzay, told AFP his son was "now deprived of all his rights to education". "There is no evidence, he was curious what was going and stayed there merely as a spectator." Ozgur, whose 18-year-old student Yaren has been held since March 25, said: "I am here to take her home." "She is innocent. She was taken just because she stood on the right or on the left of a banner," the mother said.

Cartoonist freed

Separately, a Turkish court yesterday ordered the conditional release of one of Turkey's most prominent cartoonists a day after he was jailed to serve a 14-month sentence for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, media reported. Nuri Kurtcebe, 69, was detained and sent to prison Monday after a police check found him on a bus travelling in the northwestern Turkish city of Yalova.

But his lawyer Erdem Akyuz told Turkish media that a tribunal ruled Tuesday evening that the cartoonist should be released on probation. "My client Nuri Kurtcebe will resume hs work, his drawings and his cartoons after having been deprived of his pencils and ink for two days," Akyuz was quoted as saying by the private Dogan news agency.

Kurtcebe had been handed the jail term last year for several caricatures he drew in 2015, but launched an appeal and remained free pending the ruling. His lawyer said earlier Tuesday that the authorities were enforcing the sentence after an appeal was turned down by an upper court. "What's recognized in all over the world is that artists express their work freely and that politicians, compared to others, are more tolerant to criticism," Akyuz had said. He had added that it was not clear in the court's ruling which cartoons or expressions were the source of the charges.

Kurtcebe, whose daily cartoons were published in the Aydinlik newspaper, also drew for a number of publications including Hurriyet and opposition Cumhuriyet newspapers as well as satirical magazine Girgir. Musa Kart, a Cumhuriyet cartoonist who was sentenced to three years and nine months jail in April on charges of aiding outlawed "terrorist organizations" along with several other staff, lashed out at the court's verdict. "It seems that the ruling party has not yet given up on its idea of neutralizing cartoonists with prison sentences," he said, quoted by Cumhuriyet. "I hope and wish that this political climate deprived of a sense of humor will change on June 25," he said. - AFP