The following appeared in the January 15 issue of University World News and has been highlighted in the weekly Academic Freedom Media Review published by Scholars at Risk, which tracks violations of academic freedom and civil liberties in colleges and universities around the world. While the AAUP does not generally take formal positions on violations of academic freedom in other countries, we now and then share important information on events like the ones reported below in Turkey. Our endangered Turkish colleagues deserve the support of faculty members around the world.
By Brendan O’Malley
Eighteen lecturers from Kocaeli University in North-Western Turkey have been detained for criticising ongoing military operations against Kurdish militants in the South-East of the country and 130 others face criminal charges. This follows public criticism of the academics by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused them of making “terrorist propaganda”. Eighteen lecturers from Kocaeli University in North-Western Turkey have been detained for criticising ongoing military operations against Kurdish militants in the South-East of the country and 130 others face criminal charges, according to reports.
The 18 were detained in dawn raids on the houses of 19 academics on 15 January, and more arrests were expected, the Turkish daily, Hurriyet Daily News, reported.
Some 1,128 academics from 89 universities plus some notable international scholars abroad – including the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, French philosopher Etienne Balibar, British anthropologist David Harvey, American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler and the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek – signed a petition criticising the military crackdown on Kurdish rebels which has continued for a month, and calling for military operations in civilian areas to be halted. By late Friday the petition had 1,400 signatories.
According to the Dogan news agency, all 1,128 Turkish signatories of the petition are being investigated. They could face between one and five years in prison if convicted.
The petition, an initiative of a group calling themselves Academics for Peace, was launched on 11 January.
Since the arrests some academics have received threats from ultra-nationalists, posted on their office door or wall, according to Bianet.
A notorious criminal, Sedat Peker, has also issued a public death threat on his personal website, referring to the academics as “poor excuses for intellectuals” and saying “We will let your blood in streams and we will take a shower in your blood.” Political opposition have urged prosecutors to take legal action against him, Hurriyet reported.
The arrests followed the launch of an investigation by the Kocaeli Chief Public Prosecutor’s office, according to the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman.
The academics are reportedly being charged with violating the controversial Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, under which it is illegal to insult the institutions of the Turkish nation.
The petition entitled “We won’t be a party to this crime”, called for a halt to “massacres” and urged the government to create conditions for negotiations and prepare a “road map that would lead to a lasting peace”.
But President Erdogan has accused those who signed the petition of engaging in “terrorist propaganda” on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, membership of which is illegal, and failing to condemn violence by the militants. He also said they were “the darkest of people”.
’Enemies of the state’
He had earlier called for action by legal institutions and university senates. “Everyone who benefits from this state but is now an enemy of the state must be punished without further delay,” he said.
The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s office has since launched an investigation into all of the academic signatories.
A number of universities across the country that employ some of the academic signatories have launched administrative inquiries and at least 41 academics are facing punishments, including suspension and dismissal.
Today’s Zaman reported that Kocaeli University announced on Friday that it had launched an investigation into the detained academics. It said in a public statement that the petition had led to outrage at the university.
“Calling the [anti-PKK] operations in the South-East that the Turkish security forces have been conducting to ensure the unity and solidarity of our state ‘massacre’ and ‘carnage’ and disregarding our martyrs, who lost their lives in pursuit of this, cannot comply with the concepts of democratic rights and freedoms,” the statement said, Today’s Zaman reported.
Other universities reported to have launched investigations into or launched proceedings against or suspended academics include Selcuk University, Mersin University, Trakya University, Istanbul Arel University, Giresun University and the University of Gaziantep.
Offices and homes raided
In one incident, teams of counter-terrorism units from Bolu Police Department raided the offices and homes of three signatory academics from Abant Izzet Baysal University on Friday and allegedly seized computers and mobile phones.
At Gazi University faculty of communication, a threatening note was left for Assistant Professor Kemal Inal and Assistant Professor Dr Betul Yarar, issued by “Gazi Communication Ultra-Nationalists”. Similarly, at Kirikkale University a threat note was left on the door of two academic signatories of the petition, Bianet reported.
John Bass, the United States ambassador to Turkey, said in a written statement: “We are seeing reports of academics being investigated and subjected to penalties for expressing their opinions about the conflict in the South-East. While we may not agree with the opinions expressed, we are nevertheless concerned about this pressure having a chilling effect on legitimate political discourse across Turkish society regarding the sources of and solutions to the ongoing violence.”
Sara Whyatt, an expert on human rights in Turkey and former head of PEN International’s freedom of expression programme, said the situation is moving fast.
“President Erdogan is using dangerous language, including the term ‘dark academics’, alongside ‘despicable’ and ‘cruel’ and implying that their criticism is tantamount to ‘insult’ to the Turkish state,” she told University World News.
“This talk gives ‘permission’ for extremists to take matters into their own hands, as is already happening with the threats being made and threatening by the criminal leader and messages pinned on some of the academics’ doors in their universities. This is chilling.”
She recalled that seven years ago Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor who was working for peaceful solutions to the tensions between Armenians and Turks, was shot dead outside his office. He too had been branded a ‘traitor’ and was on trial for “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Penal Code. He was murdered by ultra-nationalists.
A variety of professional groups have issued public support for the academics: 2,000 legists, 433 filmmakers, 291 theatre workers, 200 journalists, an association of psychologists and a group of authors have all signed group statements backing the academics.
There have been increasing concerns over restrictions on academic freedom and human rights in recent months. In November a new regulation came into effect, drafted by YÖK, the Higher Education Board, giving it the authority to close private universities “that have become a focal point for activities against the state’s indivisible integrity”, which is code for separatism.
Opponents fear it will mean that any private higher education institutions that are deemed critical of the government could be closed down, or lose their academic independence and be placed under YÖK’s supervision, Ebru News reported.
The following is the full text of the petition, issued January 10, signed by 1,128 Turkish scholars and many international supporters:
As academics and researchers of this country, we will not be a party to this crime!
The Turkish state has effectively condemned its citizens in Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre, Silopi, and many other towns and neighborhoods in the Kurdish provinces to hunger through its use of curfews that have been ongoing for weeks. It has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime. As a result, the right to life, liberty, and security, and in particular the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment protected by the constitution and international conventions have been violated.
This deliberate and planned massacre is in serious violation of Turkey’s own laws and international treaties to which Turkey is a party. These actions are in serious violation of international law.
We demand the state to abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region. We also demand the state to lift the curfew, punish those who are responsible for human rights violations, and compensate those citizens who have experienced material and psychological damage. For this purpose we demand that independent national and international observers to be given access to the region and that they be allowed to monitor and report on the incidents.
We demand the government to prepare the conditions for negotiations and create a road map that would lead to a lasting peace which includes the demands of the Kurdish political movement. We demand inclusion of independent observers from broad sections of society in these negotiations. We also declare our willingness to volunteer as observers. We oppose suppression of any kind of the opposition.
We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent and demand an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by the state. We will continue advocacy with political parties, the parliament, and international public opinion until our demands are met.
In the U.S. the Middle Eastern Studies Association has sent the following letter to the Erdogan government:
The letter details additional violations of academic freedom and of political repression at Turkish universities:
The government’s actions against the Peace Petition signatories are distressing for at least three reasons. First, investigating the signatories after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the campaign in a public address, calling the signatories “traitors,” suggests that YÖK’s actions are inappropriately politicized. As we noted in our letter sent on January 7, 2016, the government has enhanced YÖK’s regulatory authorities in ways that are inimical to university autonomy. In this environment, it is hardly surprising that universities are proactively taking punitive measures in anticipation of your government’s actions. Within a day of President Erdoğan’s speech and the announcement of the YÖK investigation several universities initiated punitive measures against their faculty. Assistant Professor Hülya Doğan at Bartın University is reportedly under investigation by her university for being a signatory of the petition. Likewise Sivas Cumhuriyet University has reportedly launched an investigation against Professor Ali Çeliksöz for having signed the petition. Associate Professor Latife Akyüz has been suspended by Düzce University administration, and a criminal investigation has been opened against her for “terrorism propaganda”—all for being a signatory of the petition. The rector of Abdullah Gül University in Kayseri, has reportedly demanded the resignation of Professor Bülent Tanju solely on the grounds that he is a signatory of the Peace Petition. The local prosecutor in Kayseri, taking note of the rector’s action, has also initiated a criminal investigation against Professor Tanju under Articles 216 and 301 of the Penal Code. The mere act of signing the Peace Petition has left Professor Tanju facing possible charges for “inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples” and “denigration of the Turkish nation” under these penal provisions. Lecturer Ümran Roda Suvağcı from Hakkari University has been taken into custody for having signed the petition. Further disciplinary investigations have reportedly been initiated by the rectors of four universities—Samsun Ondokuz Mayıs University, Antalya Akdeniz University, Abant Izzet Baysal University, and Ankara Hacettepe University—against members of their faculties who are signatories. Many more universities are likely to follow suit, amounting to a wave of punitive actions against academics solely on the grounds that they have criticized the government’s policies in the southeastern provinces. In a university system in which rectors are appointed by the state and YÖK is free to initiate politicized investigations of academics, the actions being taken against signatories of the Peace Petition are a stark reminder that restrictions on academic freedom have become a matter of state policy in Turkey.
Second, among the signatories of the petition are scholars whose research is on the Kurds, other minorities, politics, history, and other related fields. That is, their scholarly work is related to the concerns raised in the text of the petition. By treating the Peace Petition as treasonous and launching an investigation of signatories, the government is effectively interfering with the ability of these academics to conduct their research. President Erdoğan suggests that the petition calls for foreigners to intervene to correct the situation in Turkey. In fact, the petition called for national and international independent observers to monitor the situation in the Kurdish region. This is not a call for foreign intervention, but rather an invitation to engage in the kind of independent observation that is the hallmark of both human rights monitoring and academic research. To investigate and criminalize a petition in which scholars call for independent observers to monitor areas under siege and curfew where civilian deaths have been reported is to strike at the heart of the academic enterprise—the ability to conduct independent research.
Finally, since the general elections in 2011, this is our twentieth letter calling upon your government to protect academic freedom in Turkey. Unfortunately, more often than not these letters have identified instances in which members of your government have used their authority to silence critics within Turkish academic circles by branding them terrorists or traitors for engaging in academic research or exercising their right to free speech to call for peaceful political change. Equally, these cases have often arisen in the context of academics’ conducting research or publishing findings critical of your government’s policies with respect to Kurdish citizens or the Kurdish regions of the country. The politicization of regulatory powers over higher education to punish dissent and silence critics of your government’s policies on various issues, including Kurdish rights, represents a serious violation of academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and has cast a long shadow over the democratic credentials of your government.
The following petition to support the Turkish academics has also been initiated:
For other instances of support within Turkey by journalists, artists, associations and unions see: