(Istanbul) – Turkish authorities have placed hundreds of student protesters under possible criminal investigation, Human Rights Watch said today. The students were arrested during weeks of protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of an academic closely aligned with the government as rector of one of Turkey’s top universities.

Students and the academic staff of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul have exercised their lawful right to peacefully express their opposition to the appointment, which they regard as a move to impose government control over the institution and undermine academic autonomy and freedom.

“Erdoğan’s appointment of an unelected rector to Boğaziçi University and the violent arrests of students who had peacefully protested the move encapsulates the government’s disregard for basic human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Imposing an unelected presidential-appointee rector on a university with no consultation demonstrates a lack of respect for academic freedom and the autonomy of universities in Turkey.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eighteen students, including four who had been released from police custody, four lawyers, and two academics, analyzed images and legal documents, and monitored four student protests.

The protests by students and faculty members started after President Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu as the Boğaziçi University rector on January 1, 2021. Bulu, a political ally of the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has worked in academia and in the defense industry, and previously served as rector of two private universities.

After police harshly dispersed protests at the campus on January 4, the Istanbul prosecutor at 3 a.m. on January 5 issued arrest warrants and ordered the confiscation of cellphones, laptops, and data storage devices of at least 28 students, allegedly at the request of the city’s governor. At around 5:30 a.m. police raided at least 17 houses, in a few cases the wrong houses, and broke down doors, and in one case walls, to arrest students who took part in protests a day before.

During student protests against President Erdoğan’s appointment of a rector to Boğaziçi University, police used handcuffs to keep the campus gate shut in Istanbul, Turkey, January 4, 2021 © 2021 Private

In the following weeks, demonstrations in support of the Boğaziçi protests were held in other parts of Istanbul and in 38 cities across Turkey.

The authorities have responded to some of the demonstrations with excessive police force, summary arrests, and targeted house raids. They arrested more than 560 protesters in all, most of whom were released after a short time. Protesters detained in Istanbul in early January, all of whom were released, told Human Rights Watch that the police conducted strip-searches and verbally abused and threatened them in some cases. Three reported that police held guns to their heads during house raids, and two said the police also slapped and insulted them.

The president and senior officials have directly encouraged a tough police response throughout. President Erdoğan initially referred to the student protesters as “lazy and narrow-minded” but, together with other government officials, later began to suggest they had terrorism links, an allegation widely used by the Turkish authorities to criminalize democratic opposition and government critics.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students and protesters have been playing a key role in ongoing demonstrations. On January 29, the authorities initiated a targeted crackdown on LGBT students and protesters after students mounted an exhibition on Boğaziçi campus in solidarity with the ongoing protests that included, among many other pieces, an artwork depicting the Kaaba, the most important holy site for Muslims, combined with LGBT flags and a mythological creature that is half-snake half-woman. Police arrested two students who appear in a video of the exhibition that was streamed to the internet, and two others who were presumed to be among LGBT organizers on campus.

On the same day, the police raided a room used by a student LGBT club and confiscated flags and books. Two days later, Bulu, the new rector, shut down the students’ LGBT club.

The interior minister and Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) spokesperson called the students “perverts” on several social media platforms, apparently alluding to the artwork. Courts placed two of the students in pretrial detention and two under house arrest on suspicion of “inciting hatred and enmity” (Turkish Penal Code article 216/1).

Courts have placed at least 25 protesters under house arrest, and 9 remain in pretrial detention at the time of writing, on suspicion of “inciting hatred” and “violating the law on demonstrations” and for “resisting police orders.” Dozens were released under judicial control. The arrests and detentions come against the backdrop of heavy restrictions on public protest in Turkey; abuses of power by the government to silence critical groups; and targeting of minority groups, including LGBT people. The authorities have sometimes justified bans on demonstrations by citing the risk of Covid-19 alongside unspecified threats to public order.  

“The authorities should protect and affirm LGBT students’ rights to organize and express themselves, rather than attacking them,” Williamson said, “The Turkish authorities should respect the right to assembly, stop using abusive police power to silence dissent, and ensure the immediate release of students arbitrarily detained.”

On January 1, 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed rectors to head five universities including Boğaziçi University, a school that had been relatively exempt from a government crackdown on academia that started in 2016. Until 2016, faculty members had elected the rector of Boğaziçi University. In 2016 Erdoğan appointed a faculty member who had not run for election over the candidate who had received the majority of the votes. Despite some debate and protests over that appointment, the academics and the university students later accepted the appointee.

After his term ended in November 2020, the appointed rector became a candidate for a second term. However, President Erdoğan took the unorthodox step of appointing Melih Bulu, a candidate who was neither an academic at the school nor, faculty members said, met the academic criteria for being one.

On January 4, hundreds of students from Boğaziçi and other universities, along with faculty members and alumni, gathered inside and outside the campus to protest the appointment and to demand the rector’s resignation and the right to choose university rectors. The police responded with teargas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse the crowd.

Protests have been ongoing ever since. Alongside the student demonstrations, Boğaziçi academics have been holding silent protests every day in front of the new rector’s office, turning their backs on the rectorate for 20 minutes.

Excessive Police Force

The Turkish authorities have consistently responded to the protests with excessive use of force and arbitrary detention.

Excessive use of force was evident on the first day of protests, January 4. One Boğaziçi university student who took part in the protests, and asked that her name be withheld to avoid reprisals, said that police grabbed and dragged her, injuring her wrists, arms, and back. Another student, who gave his first name as Muhammed, said that he saw police officers dragging a protester to a bus parked inside the university premises.

The police interference was even harsher on February 1, when police blocked students inside the campus from leaving and protesters outside the campus from gathering. Human Rights Watch witnessed police officers use excessive force to arrest at least four peaceful protesters who showed no signs of aggression. Riot police entered the campus that evening to disperse the crowd and arrested more than 50 students.

On February 2, the excessive use of force escalated significantly, Human Rights Watch saw videos and images of students with broken teeth, faces covered in blood, and several police officers kicking protesters who were not attempting to resist arrest. Violent police crackdowns on protesters resumed in the following days.

Detentions

Turkish authorities have detained more than 560 protesters in at least 38 cities, with 9 currently in pretrial detention and more than 25 under house arrest. Hundreds were released, but many were subject to conditions such as travel bans and a requirement to sign in at the nearest police station on a regular basis until further notice.

The first arrests took place on January 5, following a 3 a.m. request by the Istanbul governor, lawyers said. An Istanbul prosecutor issued arrest warrants for at least 28 students, including orders to confiscate cellphones, laptops, and data storage devices. At around 5:30 a.m., special operations police units raided at least 17 houses.

At dawn, police raided a house where Yıldız Idil Şen and Havin Özcan, two trans women who had joined the protests, were staying. Şen said that police officers held guns to their heads and slapped them. Şen also said that police officers remained in the hospital room during a mandatory medical examination for detainees and used transphobic slurs throughout the detention. Şen said police officers threatened to rape her with a baton and told her, “You probably would enjoy this.”

Burak Çetiner, a master’s student at Boğaziçi University who was among those arrested on January 5, said:

I went to the protests on January 4 and police raided my house where I live with my mother and father, at dawn on January 5. We woke up to sounds of hammering on the door. The police officers in riot gear pushed us on the ground and held guns to our heads. They searched my room and confiscated my cellphone and later detained me. While in custody, police handcuffed our hands so tightly that several of us had bruises on our wrists.

A lawyer who was representing some of the students said:

The process was so fast that the prosecutor sent the orders to the police in a handwritten note. The prosecutor also issued a 48-hour long custody period for the detainees. This custody period is in violation of Turkey’s domestic law considering how light the charges are. In their quest to detain students, police raided the wrong houses, broke down doors and walls, ill-treated residents, and used excessive force. Even hours after the arrests, we as lawyers were not able to find a case number or a prosecutor to whom we could submit our appeals. Statements from officials alleging terrorism links are clearly misleading as there is no evidence to support it.

Information from lawyers and legal documents listed the grounds for the arrests as “violating the law on demonstrations” (Law 2911) and “resisting police orders.”

On January 6, the Istanbul governor used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to announce a ban until February 5 on all protests and public gatherings in the two Istanbul districts where the Boğaziçi University campuses are located. During student protests in Ankara, one student’s leg was broken during their arrest. An opposition politician alleged that a university in Ankara abruptly laid off at least eight research assistants who joined protests, citing budget cuts.

Courts imposed judicial control measures and travel bans on 26 detainees released by Istanbul courts in early January, while 2 were released unconditionally.

On January 29, police cracked down on students whom they believed to be involved in mounting an exhibition on campus in support of the protests, which featured an artwork combining the Kaaba with LGBT flags and a mythological creature. After the exhibition, police arrested two students who had been visible in a video of the exhibition that had been streamed on the internet and two who were known as campus LGBT organizers. The prosecutor is investigating four of them on suspicion of “provoking hatred or hostility” (Turkish Criminal Code 216/1). Courts placed two students in pretrial detention and two others under house arrest. A fifth student briefly arrested was released.  

On February 1, at around midnight, dozens of riot police entered the Boğaziçi campus and started arresting students who were protesting in front of the new rector’s office. Police detained at least 51 students inside the campus and about 108 outside. The prosecutor is investigating several of them on suspicion of “damaging public property,” “violating the law on demonstrations,” and “depriving an individual of their physical liberty,” which carries a prison sentence of one to five years. 

The number of detainees increased enormously in the following days. The deputy interior minister announced on February 4 that 528 protesters had been detained in 38 cities in one month and added “No one should test our state’s strength.” Human Rights Watch estimates the total number of police arrests to be around 560.

Anti-LGBT Discourse

Government officials have used anti-LGBT rhetoric to appeal to conservative outrage and to delegitimize the protests, Human Rights Watch said.

Many LGBT students have been heavily involved in the protests, in part because of concerns that the new rector, who had posted views on social media that the students characterized as anti-LGBT, would crack down on LGBT organizing and threaten the precarious safe spaces they had carved out on campus. A trans woman studying at Boğaziçi University said:

There are minority groups who are more affected [by the appointment] than the majority, for instance, LGBTQIs [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people], especially trans women and men. At a time when trans women like me have very limited safe space, such an appointment seems like an attempt to strip us of this space. We just want to exist.

Other students expressed concern that the new rector might stifle the limited amount of free speech in the university by allowing police to enter the campus in cases of protests and student club activities deemed inappropriate, such as LGBT movie nights.

On January 29, the interior minister called LGBT protesters “perverts” on his Twitter account. Twitter placed a warning on the tweet soon after for violating its rules about “hateful conduct.” President Erdoğan on the other hand, speaking at a public event of his party on February 3, described the students as “terrorists” and said “LGBT, there is no such thing. This country is national and moral.”

The students’ fears about the new rector were borne out on February 2, when Turkey’s communication director, Fahrettin Altun, shared a document on his Twitter account and said students were protesting because Bulu signed a decision to shut down Boğaziçi University’s LGBT club.

Crackdown on Academia

The laws and regulations on universities in Turkey have been amended and revised under political power shifts since the 1940s.

The universities had considerable autonomy in selecting their own rectors until 1981 when the then military junta established a body called the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) to select a pool of candidates for top university posts for the president of the country to choose from. In 1992, the government restructured the election system to allow faculty members to take part in selecting candidates.

The most recent amendments to the appointment of rectors came while Turkey was under emergency rule after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. A state of emergency decree (KHK 676) granted the president the authority to appoint rectors, and another decree in 2018 (KHK 703) reduced the requirement for candidates from five years as a professor to three.

Between 2016 and 2018, the government used decree laws to shut down 15 private universities, dismiss more than 6,800 academics, and prosecute hundreds of academics based on alleged terrorism links for signing a petition calling for a peaceful resolution to the decades-long Kurdish conflict in southeastern Turkey.

In addition to barring purged academics from working in universities in Turkey, the government also canceled their passports, leaving them unable to work or to travel to seek employment outside the country.

The government increased funding for Boğaziçi University after Bulu became rector. President Erdoğan announced through the Official Gazette on February 6 the formation of two new faculties at the university. Students and critics see the move as an attempt to bring in academics from other universities to allow the new rector to form a management team to determine decision-making structures as well as to exert influence over the university’s policies. Many academics at the university have reportedly refused to work with him.  

In 2020, President Erdoğan stripped Istanbul Şehir University of its permit to operate. Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister under Erdoğan and now a political rival, was the university’s founder. Erdoğan’s move to close it down was widely seen in the independent media as a reprisal against Davutoğlu.  

Since the coup attempt, rectors, or academics linked with the ruling Justice and Development Party, have had a significant advantage with respect to promotions. President Erdoğan has appointed several former AKP members of parliament or former party members as rectors of leading universities in recent years.

“Ankara should understand universities are not government offices and academics are not mere civil servants,” said Esra Mungan, an academic at Boğaziçi University. Burak Çetiner, a student in a master’s program at the university said that “[t]here is pressure on all parts of life in Turkey including universities.”

In 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. Thirty students who were at the protest were first detained and later charged with “spreading terrorist propaganda.” In 2020, an Istanbul court sentenced 27 of them to 10 months in prison and fined the other 3.

International Standards on Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

Freedoms of expression and assembly, guaranteed under international law, including by articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) respectively, extend to everyone and protect the right to peaceful protest. In an academic setting and combined with the right to education (guaranteed under article 2 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR and article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)), these freedoms take on a particular significance and are core to the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Academic freedom is a broad principle that protects educators and students and applies to the complete range of academic pursuits – formal and informal, inside the classroom and beyond. The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which interprets the ICESCR, has stated that “academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor….” The committee underlined that “enjoyment of academic freedom requires the autonomy of institutions of higher education.”

The Council of Europe requires member states such as Turkey to respect both academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and its Committee of Ministers has issued multiple recommendations to member states on this responsibility. The committee has noted that “academic freedom and institutional autonomy are essential values of higher education” that “serve the common good of democratic societies.” The committee defines academic freedom as, among other things, guaranteeing “the right of both institutions and individuals to be protected against undue outside interference, by public authorities or others.” The European Union, of which Turkey is not a member, includes the obligation to respect academic freedom in article 13 of its Charter of Fundamental Rights.