(Berlin) – The Turkish government’s dismissal of thousands of academics and the prosecution of hundreds more, together with interference with academics’ work and student protests, is leading to self-censorship and hollowing out academic freedom in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.
“The Turkish government’s crackdown is targeting academics and damaging its universities” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Academics and students should be free to express, teach, and research controversial or critical ideas without risking dismissal or imprisonment.”
The government has carried out mass firings of academics without due process, using dubious allegations of links to terrorism or the July 2016 coup plot. It is also investigating and prosecuting academics on trumped-up terrorism charges. The authorities are interfering with student protests on campus, and prosecuting student activists. And officials are interfering with academic research on controversial topics.
Together these actions are creating a climate of fear and self-censorship on campus, and breaching Turkey’s obligations under human rights law to respect and protect academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 academics from Turkey. Seven were fired under emergency decrees issued after the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. One of them has left the country and is working at a university abroad. Thirteen are under criminal investigation or facing criminal trials, and one has been convicted and filed an appeal.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed four university students from different universities, including one doctoral candidate, and four lawyers, three of whom represent university students in criminal investigations. Human Rights Watch also examined interrogation protocols, court rulings, indictments, and media reports.
“We are very afraid,” one student said. “Our thoughts, our opinions, and our bodies are now targets of violence from all sides. We now don’t only think twice, but three or four times before we write or say something.”
Since the 2016 coup attempt, more than 5,800 academics have been dismissed from public universities under emergency decrees, as part of a general crackdown on public employees with alleged ties to “terrorist organizations.” At least 378 of them had signed a January 2016 Academics for Peace petition condemning the government’s draconian security operations in the Kurdish southeast. Another 38 academics from public universities and 48 from private universities have been dismissed by their universities and were told by university officials that it was for signing the petition.
Human Rights Watch examined eight cases of academics dismissed from their posts. In the cases of those fired under emergency decrees, it was impossible to determine the reasons for their dismissal as the decrees include no evidence of alleged wrongdoing or individualized justifications. The decrees only refer to generalized alleged links to “terrorist organizations.”
Those fired cannot challenge their cases with their employers. An ad hoc commission the government established to review the mass dismissals of government employees is proceeding slowly. In the meantime, those affected have no right to work in government jobs, and many have been unable to find private sector work. In some cases, they lost health care coverage, and the government revoked their passports or froze their bank accounts. Family members have been fired from private sector jobs.
Scores of academics are being prosecuted on trumped-up terrorism charges. At least 13 who signed the Academics for Peace petition have been convicted of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization in individual trials since December 2017. Human Rights Watch reviewed case files or indictments in six of the cases against academics and found a lack of compelling evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Evidence cited in five cases included the use of legal bank accounts, sending their children to private schools, or travel and research associated with their work as academics.
Turkish authorities frequently rely on overbroad antiterrorism legislation and inadequate judicial independence to punish nonviolent activities. Human Rights Watch research has found that investigations and prosecutions for terrorism-related offenses in Turkey often lack concrete evidence and fail to adhere to due process.
Students who engage in campus protests can also face prosecution. 35 university students from Istanbul have been detained since March 22, 2018, after a peaceful anti-war protest on the campus of Boğaziçi University on March 19. They are charged with terrorism propaganda in connection with the protest, and 14 of the group are in pretrial detention.
Several academics interviewed said that the government and university administrations had intervened to seek to prevent academics from carrying out research or attending conferences on critical issues. One academic who wished to remain anonymous said that the university administration asked the academic to “be cautious” in choosing seminar and research topics, and said that that the administration regarded subjects pertaining to longstanding efforts by the Kurdish population to obtain greater language and political rights, and religious minorities in Turkey as “too sensitive at the moment.”
Many professors and students said that the crackdown on all facets of university life has led to widespread self-censorship and a stagnant academic environment. They said that Turkish universities are no longer places where critical debates, creative thinking, and the discussion of controversial ideas were possible. “Fear and self-censorship are like smoke,” said a senior academic who wished to remain anonymous. “It seeps everywhere, and it gets thicker every day. We cannot breathe anymore.”
“One major role of universities is to provide a forum for critical debates and scholarship on controversial topics,” Williamson said. “Turkey’s assault on academic freedom negatively affects not only its universities, but also society at large.”
Dismissals of Academics without Due Process
Under the current state of emergency, put in place shortly after the coup attempt in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chairs the cabinet, which can pass emergency decrees without parliamentary scrutiny or the possibility of appeal to the constitutional court. Under a string of emergency decrees issued since July 2016, more than 150,000 public officials have been fired without due process, including more than 5,800 academics. According to government statements, the main target is employees suspected of ties with the Gülen movement, a religious movement headed by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.
The Turkish government describes the movement as the “Fethullahist terrorist organization” (FETÖ) and accuses it of being the main group responsible for the coup attempt. But Human Rights Watch has seen no evidence in relation to individual academics that would support the conclusion that they were involved in violence, plotting a coup, or other conduct that would justify their dismissal.
Moreover, it is clear that the purges target a much wider group of people, including critics of the government, and human rights defenders. The targeting of signatories of the January 2016 Academics for Peace petition is an example of this. More than 2,000 academics signed the petition. At least 378 of them have been dismissed from public universities and barred from public service under state of emergency decrees. Public and private universities fired at least 86 others without emergency decrees. Hundreds more are under disciplinary investigation.
In January 2017, following international criticism about the lack of due process in the mass dismissals, the government established an ad hoc commission to review decisions under the state of emergency. There is a right of further appeal, but mechanisms for redress and compensation are likely to take many years.
By mid-April more than 108,000 people had applied to the commission, but decisions have been issued in only 12,000 cases. The commission overturned the firing in only 310 of these cases, and it is unclear how many of the cases, overturned or not, involved academics.
Academics dismissed via emergency decree do not have the right to return to their old posts, even if the commission decides in their favor. Under a decree issued in August 2017, academics are preferably to be reinstated in universities that opened after 2006 and are outside Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. This means that the doors of all of Turkey’s prestigious universities will be closed to them.
In the meantime, those affected face other devastating consequences. They have no right to work in public service jobs. In several cases Human Rights Watch examined, they have been prevented from working in their chosen profession because they also face travel bans and have been publicly “blacklisted.” In at least five cases examined, the fired academics, labeled as “terrorists,” found it impossible to find any work at all.
In three cases, family members of academics fired by decree, such as partners and children, have been fired from their private sector jobs. At least three have lost their health care benefits. All of their passports have been confiscated, making it impossible to leave the country legally and seek employment abroad. The academics abroad left the country before being dismissed via emergency decree.
An associate professor of sociology, Bayram Erzurumluoğlu, was dismissed from Adıyaman University by emergency decree on September 1, 2016. On October 31, 2016, he was detained during a dawn raid on his home in Adıyaman on accusations of coup plotting and membership in an armed criminal organization.
The police questioned Erzurumluoğlu, who had been involved in the organizing of international student exchange programs, such as the European Erasmus Program, about his travels to partner universities abroad with Adıyaman University colleagues. They also questioned him about his account at Bank Asya, a bank associated with the Gülen movement that the authorities have since shut down.
Erzurumluoğlu said that under an agreement between the university and the bank, university employees had to use their bank card as a pass for public transportation, and to pay at the university cafeteria, and as their personnel ID card to be able to enter the campus. The police also asked him about “his aim” related to a sociological survey that had been prepared by one of his students as part of a homework assignment, and that included questions on the eventuality that the governing Justice and Development Party might perform poorly in the next elections.
Erzurumluoğlu was conditionally released on November 8, 2016, by an Adıyaman Peace Court. He has not been indicted but remains under criminal investigation. He has been unable to find work in Turkey or abroad, as he was banned from travelling abroad, and the commission has not yet completed his case.
In many public and private universities, the dismissal of academics had a profound impact on the functioning of entire departments, the workload of those who remained, and the ability of students to enroll and complete their degrees.
One example is the Faculty of Political Sciences at Ankara University, where 28 academics were dismissed between September 1, 2016 and February 7, 2017. Kerem Altıparmak, a member of the faculty who remains, told Human Rights Watch that during the previous fall and spring semesters no new students could be accepted into the human rights program as a result. “The workload for the remaining teaching staff is overwhelming,” he said. “The faculty has been crippled.”
Scores of academics have faced criminal investigation and prosecution on trumped up terrorism charges. They include people accused of Gülenist links and alleged coup involvement and some who signed the Academics for Peace petition.
Suat Aşkın, an assistant professor in management studies, was fired from Adıyaman University on September 1, 2016, under an emergency decree. Police raided his home on October 31, 2016, and arrested him. The police interrogation included questions about his Bank Asya account and two of his children’s attendance at a private school associated with the Gülen movement. They also asked him about his travel abroad, which he said was to attend an international workshop on disability rights.
An Adıyaman peace court conditionally released him on November 8, 2016, but police rearrested him nine days later following an appeal by the prosecutor by order of a peace court in Urfa. He spent 10 months in pretrial detention, then was conditionally released on September 15, 2017. The indictment is pending while the criminal investigation against him continues. He has been unable to obtain information about the evidence against him or the reason for his dismissal. The commission has not yet reviewed his case.
At least 265 academics who signed the Academics for Peace petition are on trial, and hundreds more have been investigated on charges of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization. The January 2016 petition condemned the Turkish government’s security operations against the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) youth movement in cities of southeast Turkey. The government crackdown had a devastating impact on the Kurdish civilian population. The petition has now been signed by more than 2,000 academics in Turkey and hundreds outside the country.
Identical accusations against each of the academics prosecuted on charges related to signing the petition are outlined in a 17-page indictment, but each proceeding is to be separate and the prosecutor has not opted to indict all the academics in one process. Trials started on December 5, 2017. As of April 26, 2018, court hearings had begun for 200 academics, and 12 were given what is referred to in Turkey as “deferred’ prison sentences.
Such sentences are not carried out and will be removed from their records if for a certain period no re-offense is committed. Re-offenses potentially include any public expression of opinion critical of government policies, participation in demonstrations or protests, or the publication of academic work on topics deemed off-limits by the Turkish authorities.
On April 4, a Galatasaray University professor, Zübeyde Füsun Üstel, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and has appealed. New cases are expected to be opened in the coming months.
On April 12, the 32nd Heavy Penalty Court in Istanbul issued a deferred sentence of one year and three months for an assistant professor of social psychology, Yasemin Gülsüm Acar, for propaganda for a terrorist organization in connection with signing the petition. Acar, who teaches at the private Özyeğin University in Istanbul, has appealed the verdict.
On March 19, 2018, a group of students peacefully protested a stand set up by another group of students on the campus of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University to support the Turkish military operation in the northwest Syrian district of Afrin. Erdoğan called the students who joined the protest “traitors to their country” and “terrorist youth” and demanded that their right to study at the university be revoked.
The police intervened beginning March 22, detaining 24 students for their alleged participation in the peaceful protest. Fourteen of them have been placed in pretrial detention on accusations of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization, while 10 others were released, eight conditionally. Two male university students who were detained on April 12 and remanded to pretrial detention two days later told their lawyers during a prison visit that they had been tortured while in police custody. According to the lawyers’ statements, the two students were beaten, stripped naked, and threatened with sexual assault at the Istanbul Security Directorate in Vatan Caddesi. Human Rights Watch has documented a rise in the abuse of detainees in police custody in Turkey over the past two years.
One of the lawyers told Human Rights Watch that more detentions were expected, and that at least one student had stopped attending classes for fear of arrest.
Police detained Kübra Sağır, a Turkish literature and history student at Boğaziçi University and head of the Kurdish literature commission at the university’s student literature club, during a police raid on her student dorm on March 22. They questioned Sağır about the preparations for the anti-war protest and two of the slogans used on March 19, neither of which promoted violence.
On April 3, the 6th Istanbul Peace Court accepted the prosecutor’s request to arrest her, pending trial on charges of terrorism propaganda. She is in the Bakırköy Women’s Prison. Sağır’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that her case file was subject to a confidentiality order so that he has no access to the evidence cited against his client.
A university student who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons said that campus activities, especially those related to activism and rights struggles, had come under intense pressure both from private actors and the university administration. The student said that the university increasingly used the threat of disciplinary action to deter students from participating in peaceful political protests on campus. The student said that nationalist groups have increasingly threatened and intimidated student activists, leaving them feeling unsafe. “We are very afraid,” the student said. “Our thoughts, our opinions, and our bodies are now targets of violence from all sides. We now don’t only think twice, but three or four times before we write or say something.”
Almost all academics interviewed said that the government and university administrations have intervened to prevent academics from carrying out research or from attending conferences on critical issues.
In one case, the university ethics commission delayed for four months a request for the required permission for a six-month research project related to the Kurdish issue on the grounds that the research topic was too sensitive. Kerem Altıparmak said he was refused permission on five occasions to leave the country to attend conferences on international human rights and the state of emergency in Turkey.
An academic who wished to remain anonymous said that the administration at their university had begun to interfere in publication topics and was asking staff not to organize conferences, workshops, or panels on “sensitive issues” so as not to “anger the government.” At least two academics said that senior academic staff refused to supervise student theses on “sensitive” topics such as the Kurdish issue.
The government crackdown has created an environment of pervasive self-censorship in Turkish universities. Both academics and students repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that certain topics cannot be discussed at all, such as the current state of emergency, the dismissals and rule by decree, or the Turkish government’s military operation in the Syrian district of Afrin. In some cases that Human Rights Watch documented, private universities asked teaching staff not to organize conferences, panels, or seminars on topics considered “sensitive” or critical of the Turkish government.
Yücel Demirer, a political scientist who signed the Academics for Peace petition and was dismissed via an emergency decree from his university in Kocaeli said, “Universities are in a dire state. The quality of academia has significantly decreased. Nobody can speak out freely and without fear anymore.”
Altıparmak, of Ankara University, said, “Critical speech has been stifled. Even on the university public email list nobody makes any comment anymore that could be understood as being critical of the university, the administration, or the government.” He said that government officials were not the only ones policing critical speech, “Many professors and lecturers are very careful of what they say in front of students.” He said that cases are increasing in which students record lectures and file complaints to the administration about speech deemed too critical or dissident.
The scholar who wished to remain anonymous said that self-censorship had become “the biggest stumbling block” in Turkish academia. I have adjusted the way I express myself in class and the way I frame things. The language I use in my work has changed.”
Academic Freedom Protected Under International Law
Academic freedom is protected under international human rights law. Academic freedom comprises both rights for individual members of academia, such as freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly, and autonomy for institutions, which must be free from state interference with the university’s educational mission.
The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, to which Turkey is party, protects the right to education. The United Nations Committee on the Economic Social and Cultural Rights has found that the enjoyment of the right to education depends on academic freedom. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Turkey is party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly.
Academic freedom is also protected as part of freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in the case of Sorguç v. Turkey that “the importance of academic freedom […] comprises the academics’ freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work and freedom to distribute knowledge and truth without restriction.”