Lecturers detained, threatened for opposing military action

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.

This follows public criticism of the academics by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused them of making “terrorist propaganda”.

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, Briish 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.