Is imprisoned academic a victim of a mass witchhunt?

A letter from Professor Sedat Laçiner, a prominent imprisoned academic, saying he has been held without trial or access to a lawyer since 23 July, has been passed to University World News.

In a week when 73 more academics were detained by police in dawn raids, it raises questions about whether academics are being rounded up as part of a legitimate investigation into real threats to the state or as an attempt to clamp down on dissenting voices.

According to Laçiner’s family, he has been charged with terrorism offences in connection with FETÖ – the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation, which is the term the government uses to refer to the Gülen movement, comprising followers of the moderate Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen – along with his brother, Vedat, also an academic, but has been given no details of what they are supposed to have done to warrant being charged. Both are being held at the Çanakkale E Type Closed Prison, B12, the family says.

Laçiner’s letter was passed by his family to University World News last week to “be his voice”. It was originally handwritten on 13 October. They said it is forbidden for prisoners to send letters to media agents, politicians or human rights organisations, but he only sent it to the family. They then decided to have it translated it and pass it on.

In the letter Laçiner said he has not been allowed to speak to his lawyer or to exercise his right to defend himself and that his period of imprisonment is being extended automatically without any right to a hearing or to appear before a judge.

He said: “I am under arrest for more than three months and I don’t know how long I will be kept imprisoned. I even haven’t been told what the reason for my imprisonment is.”

In 2006 Laçiner became the first Turkish citizen on the list of Young Global Leaders in the category of Intellectuals, who were selected from the whole world by the World Forum in Davos.

In 2011 he became the youngest university leader in the country when he was appointed by president Abdullah Gül, an ally of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, near Gallipoli in the Dardanelles – which with 35,000 students is one of the largest state universities.

He is a former adviser to the Minister of Interior and advisor to the president of the Council of Higher Education.

A prolific author, frequently quoted or interviewed by national and international media, he also has a masters in international politics from Sheffield University, and a doctorate from King’s College London, both in the United Kingdom.

In his letter he stressed that as a well-known liberal and secular author, journalist and academic, has always supported the policies of the government on integration with the European Union and democratisation.

But whenever the current Justice and Development Party or AKP government “started to break off from the West and started to glide more to an Islamic line”, he criticised the government.

“The regression in the Turkish democracy, the increase of autocracy and the decrease of freedom of expression in Turkey had always concerned me. I always have been against the disengagement of Turkey from the EU and its gliding to the East,” he said in the letter.

Laçiner believes it is due to his alternative vision and criticism of the government that he was arrested after 15 July – the date of the attempted coup in Turkey.

No food or sleep

According to his family, two days after being arrested he was questioned for 24 hours without food or sleep, but there has been no progress on his case since then. All conversations during family visits are recorded, they said.

“I encountered all these [problems] only because of my dissenting opinions,” Laçiner wrote in his letter. “Not even one crime has been mentioned and shown as justification for my imprisonment. Since more than three months there is no explanation on the reason of my imprisonment.

“Without doubt this situation is in contradiction with the universal agreements of human rights to which Turkey is a party and is inconsistent with the Turkish Constitution.”

The letter said that at the beginning of October there were more than 35,000 similar cases of arrest with the number increasing each day and the number of “illegal and out of court dismissals” exceeded 100,000.

Under international law no one can be detained without a legitimate reason, and anyone accused of a crime has a right to a fair trial and under proper process lawyers should be present during interrogations.

Under the United Nations body of principles for the protection of all persons under any form of detention or imprisonment:
  • • Anyone arrested shall be informed at the time of their arrest of the reason for their arrest and be promptly informed of any charges against them.
  • • A person shall not be kept in detention without being given an effective opportunity to be heard promptly by a judicial or other authority. A detainee shall have the right to defend himself or be assisted by counsel as prescribed by law.
  • • A detained person and his counsel, if any, shall receive prompt and full communication of any detention order together with the reasons therefore.
All three of these principles have been breached in Laçiner’s case, as it has been described by him, if it can be verified. In effect he is being held in arbitrary detention.

According to a joint letter by 26 international human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, published on 20 October, “numerous provisions in Turkey’s emergency decrees have suspended key safeguards that protect detainees from torture and other ill-treatment in ways that violate Turkey’s international obligations and place detainees at risk.

“These include:
  • • Prolonged police detention for terrorism-related offences and organised crime without legal review – extended from four days to 30 days;
  • • Denial of a detainee’s right to see a lawyer for up to five days and severe restrictions on the right to choose a lawyer during police detention;
  • • Interference with confidential access to a counsel, including monitoring and recording of communications at the request of a prosecutor.”
The joint statement recognises that the Turkish government has a right and responsibility to investigate the violent events of the July coup attempt and bring those responsible to justice. It also recognises that the immediate aftermath of that event was the type of exceptional circumstance in which a government could legitimately invoke a state of emergency “but still has to comply with their human rights obligations”.

The statement adds: “We are increasingly concerned that the far-reaching, almost unlimited discretionary powers exercised by the Turkish authorities during the first three months of the state of emergency – now extended for a further three months [from 19 October] – endanger the principles of rule of law and human rights safeguards.”

And it calls on the Turkish government to “revoke the measures under the state of emergency, the application of which, in practice is incompatible with Turkey’s human rights obligations”.

Stifling dissent

The human rights NGOs accuse the Turkish authorities of having “abused emergency provisions to stifle dissent, through the detention of large numbers of individuals, including both real and perceived critics of the government and others”.

The experience of the Laçiner brothers, if verified, appears to bear this out and raises questions about whether they, the 73 academics arrested on Friday, and others before them are part of a mass witch-hunt against critics, rather than a proper investigation into the coup attempt.

Andolou news agency reported that the 73 academics were arrested at Yildiz Technical University as part of the anti-terror probe into FETÖ.

Laçiner’s brother, Dr Vedat Laçiner, an assistant professor at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, was also arrested on 23 July and is being held in the same prison. He has a PhD in law from the University of Passau, Germany.

“The government wants to punish the whole family of any opponent,” a family member told University World News.

The family member, who does not wish to be named, said neither of the two academics have been charged, and neither had any connection with any terrorist group or organisation. They said that neither had ever had any connection with the Gülen movement, which is a conservative Islamist-leaning movement.

Neither academic has been a member of Gülenist unions or associations, neither has had money in Bank Asya, which belongs to the Gülenists, and neither has used the ByLock, a mobile phone app, all of which are common criteria for suspecting someone of being a Gülenist, the family member said.

The use of ByLock, a messaging app that proved insecure, has enabled Turkish authorities to trace thousands of people they accuse of participating in the Gülenist movement, according to a Turkish official quoted in The Guardian, although members stopped using the app early in 2016 after realising it had been compromised.

The official said that, starting in May 2015, Turkish intelligence officers were able to identify close to 40,000 under-cover Gülenist operatives, including 600 ranking military personnel, by tracking the connections between ByLock users.

The 73 academics arrested on Friday were accused of using “the ByLock messaging app linked to the 15 July coup attempt” and “being members of an armed terror organisation”, according to a police source speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, the coup plotters in 2016 did not use ByLock; according to media reports they coordinated their activities using WhatsApp.

According to Laçiner’s family, dozens of academics from his university are thought to have been arrested and up to 30 are thought to still be in the same prison, although this has not been confirmed.

“The Çanakkale Prison may have the highest educational level in the world today – a cardiology professor, paediatrician, neurosurgeon professor, ceramic artist, public administration professor, literature professor, engineering professor, history, educational sciences, economics... all of them academics, all of them with a PhD degree, some of them with a PhD from the United States or Europe,” the family member said.

Liberal critic

The case of Sedat Laçiner, as described by him, may raise questions about whether powers of arrest are being abused on a wider scale. He was rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University from 2011 until February 2015, when he won the election for the post, but President Erdogan replaced him with another nominee, Yücel Acer, who received 50% fewer votes.

According to a report in Al-Monitor in March 2015, after Acer’s appointment it was declared that there would be a “cleansing” of “parallels” in the university, a term used to refer to people associated with the Gülenist movement who were said to be taking up positions of influence across Turkish society, in effect creating a “parallel” state.

The Al–Monitor report, written by Mustafa Akyol, said with Acer’s appointment, Laçiner lost more than his rectorate. His computer was taken away and he was transferred to a small campus 62 miles away and CCTV footage of his “entire former team” was scrutinised for evidence of “crimes”.

Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, was not the only focus of a hunt for “parallels”, however, according to Akyol. The media was calling for dismissal of “parallel academics” at other universities, with Gazi University, Ankara, a particular target.

Akyol’s analysis, more than a year before the failed coup, was that while objectively it was fair to say that the Gülen movement had been “cadre building” at universities and other state institutions, the witch-hunt against Gülenists was itself an alternative wave of cadre building by the ruling Justice and Development Party or AKP.

According to Akyol, Sedat Laçiner used to be sympathetic to AKP but in the two years to April 2015 had grown critical of Erdogan’s authoritarianism, leading some pro-government supporters to suggest he might be a “parallel”. Even the fact that he had a photo of Erdogan’s predecessor, President Gül on his office wall instead of the incumbent, allegedly made his politics suspicious.

Yet internationally, Laçiner is well known as a liberal critic and analyst, which does not seem to fit the profile of a member of the conservative Islamist Gülenist movement.

He says he has written 26 books and numerous scientific articles on international security and the fight against terrorism in Turkish and English. He has many times been quoted by the BBC, The New York Times and other media outlets and he was general coordinator at the International Strategic Research Organisation, an influential Ankara-based think tank and partner institution of the Brookings Institution, having previously been its director.

In an article in the Turkish Sun on 6 May this year, Laçiner wrote: “The issue of abuse of terrorism laws is a serious problem for any country. Even in advanced democracies, we witness the governments and security forces use anti-terrorism laws to eliminate dissenting voices.”

Turkey has never been a fully fledged democracy and anti-terror laws in some degree have always been used as a tool to suppress legitimate opposition, he wrote. Human rights violations had frequently taken place disguised as a fight against terrorism. But despite its bad record in the past, Turkey “has never been as bad as it is today”.

He said more than 11,000 people were in prison for political crimes, many of them accused for being, helping and supporting terrorists as a result of “the most innocent criticism about government policies”.

Another form of anti-terrorism laws was to “make up terrorist organisations” by expanding the definition of terrorism unlawfully, he said. He cited as an example President Erdogan’s war on his erstwhile allies in the Gülenist movement – after prosecutors, who were said to be Gülenist sympathisers, brought corruption and bribery cases against government members – and his declaration that the Gülen movement was an “unarmed terrorist organisation”.

'Destroying a political rival'

Laçiner argued that Erdogan was trying to destroy an unarmed group “just because it is his political rival”.

Two months after he offered this view, the failed coup attempt, in which 265 people were killed, collapsed as people took to the streets to oppose it. The attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government was blamed on supporters of Fethullah Gülen, and many people in Turkey, including in opposition groups, support this view, although Gülen himself, exiled in the United States, denies any involvement.

Since then the government has issued emergency decrees, under which thousands of people have been arrested and more than 10,000 civil servants, including 1,267 university staff have been dismissed. According to Human Rights Watch 150 media outlets have been closed down.

If detainees like Sedat Laçiner are either not being told the reasons why they have been arrested, or not being given access to a lawyer or not able to have their case heard by a judge, academics across the country may reasonably fear that any number of them could be subjected to arbitrary detention at any moment, whether due to a false accusation or for the type of app they have on their phone.