By Noemi Levy-Aksu*
Since Turkey launched a military operation in Afrin, northern Syria, in January, state repression against critical voices has escalated once more. Hundreds of Turkish citizens who expressed their opposition to war, massacres and the displacement of Kurdish civilians have been arrested.
As with two years ago, when a petition by academics against the ongoing war in the Kurdish region was released, demanding peace has been deemed as supporting terror by the government and the pro-governmental media.
On 26 February 2018 a statement from the Ministry of Interior confirmed that 845 people were detained for criticising Turkey’s Afrin operation — code-named Operation Olive Branch — on social media and taking part in protests. Each week now brings new arrests on similar grounds, with students and academics caught up in the wave of repression.
In early February two academics, Onur Hamzaoğlu and Serdar Başçetin, were arrested. Hamzaoğlu is a doctor well known for his research into the correlation between industrial pollution and cancer in Kocaeli Province. He was dismissed from Kocaeli University, along with other signatories of the petition, by an emergency-decree after the attempted coup in July 2016. Hamzaoğlu is a co-founder of the Kocaeli Solidarity Academy and a co-spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK), a union left-wing parties and civil society organisations, formed in 2011 with the aim of recreating politics and promoting a democratic society against social, ethnic, religious and gender discrimination. He was arrested on 9 February before the HDP Congress and is still detained, together with dozens of party members.
Serdar Başçetin was a research assistant who was fired from Erzincan University by emergency decree. He was arrested in Antalya on 13 February for his support to Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça during their hunger strikes and his posts on Afrin on social media. On 29 March he was acquitted of all charges at the first hearing.
Students at Boğaziçi University, one of the leading higher education institutions in the country, known for its autonomy and liberal traditions, have also come under attack. The so-called “Afrin delight” incident started on 19 March when pro-governmental students opened a stand on campus to distribute Turkish delights in honour of the Afrin expedition and the Turkish soldiers who lost their lives there. Tension raised when students carrying a banner reading “No delight for occupation and massacre” protested against the stand and both groups started to fight. What could have remained an incident indicative of the political tensions that exist between students turned into a pretext for a wide police operation on campus. Arrests began on 22 March when five students were rounded-up in the early morning in the dormitories and homes. A press statement organised on the North Campus condemning these arrests gave way to a violent police intervention and further arrests.
In the days that followed president Erdogan himself condemned the “no delight” students, calling them terrorists and adding that these “communists” and “traitors” would not be given right to education. Academics were warned by the president that there would be consequences if they co-operated with these students.
Some students reported being kept for long hours in a police van, severely beaten, insulted and, for some of them, sexually assaulted before being released. Since then, police have been patrolling the campus, leading to fresh arrests. Some of those arrested weren’t even involved in the initial incident. On 3 April, when 15 Boğaziçi students were brought before Çağlayan courthouse, ten were sentenced to pre-trial detention. For their anti-war slogans, they were accused of spreading terrorist propaganda. They remain in prison.
This repression came as no surprise. On 7 January, while speaking at the university on the invitation of a conservative alumni association, Erdogan had criticised the university in the presence of the rector for not being “local and national” enough. Yet Boğaziçi’s loss of autonomy had actually started much earlier. In November 2016, showing no consideration for the summer elections that had seen the previous rector re-elected with more than 80% of votes, Erdogan appointed professor Mehmed Özkan, a Boğaziçi academic who hadn’t even been a candidate in the election. Despite protests by a small group of academics and students, Özkan’s election was greeted with relief by the majority of academics, trusting his promise to protect the liberal tradition of the university and its academic staff. Academic freedom and freedom of expression have come under joint attack from the government and the university administration.
In March 2017 I was dismissed from Boğaziçi, along with professor Abbas Vali, for signing the petition for peace. The Higher Education Council revoked our work permit and the university cancelled our contracts. We were singled out as the two foreign signatories of the petition. Before us, Murat Sevinç, an academic dismissed by emergency-decree from Ankara University, had already been compelled to stop his part-time teaching at Boğaziçi. The rector’s justification for our dismissal was the duty to obey orders – the universal excuse of civil servants trying to escape their responsibilities – and the need to protect the institution against further attacks. Fortunately, this view was challenged by some supportive colleagues and an extraordinary mobilisation of students from the history department who set up a tent throughout the Spring term on the North Campus, where they attempted to raise awareness of our dismissal by inviting academics to participate in outdoor lectures and workshops.
Yet it was already clear by then that the attacks against critical academics across the country and the appointment of a pro-governmental rector had dramatically shrunk the space for critique and opposition on campus. As with elsewhere in Turkey, fear of repression and a disillusionment with the possibility for change grew, and with it, self-censorship spread among academics and students.
Since then, things have only worsened for critical academics and students across the country. In October 2017 the Ministry of Justice made public that more than 36,000 students were detained in Turkey, raising to nearly 70,000 when open university students are included. While the number of students currently detained is likely to be even higher, these figures reflect the heavy price paid by critical students, deprived of their liberty and their right to education for expressing their opposition to state policy. Meanwhile, the trial against the Academics for Peace is ongoing in Istanbul and several academics have already been sentenced to a 15-months suspended prison sentence for spreading terrorist propaganda because they signed the 2016 petition. On 4 April, professır Füsun Üstel, from Galatasaray University, another academic was given a 15-month prison sentence, with the right to appeal the decision.
Aside from the purges, the state authorities encourage a culture of denunciation through dedicated online platforms, where complaints can lead to a police or administrative investigation. The Education Council relentlessly fights against the remaining spaces of academic freedom, relying on the active complicity of most universities’ administrative boards. Both academics’ right to critique and students’ right to education are under threat. After the Boğaziçi incident, the Higher Education Council announced that they considered adopting new disciplinary procedures against students. The same day, in a statement published on Boğaziçi University website, the rectorate denounced terror, welcomed police intervention on campus and announced disciplinary procedure for students who protested against the Afrin expedition, cynically referring to the university’s commitment to “freedom of expression” of the other camp.
While an international petition now calls for solidarity with Boğaziçi students, academics and students must find ways to stand together for a free and diverse university, despite the threats, arrests and intimidation.
*Noémi Lévy-Aksu is an historian, currently visiting scholar at Birkbeck College. She is part of the network Academics for Peace-UK and a trustee for the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research.