Purged academics faced violence, threats of lynching

In a week in which 330 more academics were purged from Turkish universities, dismissed academics have provided University World News with testimony of being subjected to indefinite arbitrary detention without access to a lawyer; dismissed with their passport and credit cards blocked and prevented from working in academia at home or abroad and denied a pension; or subjected to mob violence and threats of a lynching.

On 9 February, University World News received a second letter from Sedat Laçiner, a prominent academic being held in a Turkish prison (Canakkale), saying he is still being held without trial or access to a lawyer, nearly seven months after being detained.

Laçiner, a former adviser to the Minister of Interior and advisor to the president of the Council of Higher Education, first wrote to University World News from prison in November, reporting that had been held since July.

In his new letter, he told University World News: “I was accused of supporting the so-called coup without any evidence and I was arrested on 20 July 2016 in Canakkale. I cannot reach my lawyer and I have been under dreadful prison conditions.”

He said the Turkish Attorney declared his file “secret” and refuses to give any details of the accusations against him, which he says is the case with thousands of files of other people detained after the failed coup of 15 July 2016.

The government has blamed supporters of the reportedly moderate Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for the coup attempt, in which 240 people died and which drew civilian protests against the threat to democracy onto the streets.

Laçiner, a former rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, near Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, said: “My only fault is my opinions. I opposed the Syrian and the Kurdish policies of the [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan rule. I’ve also strongly criticised the government’s authoritarian and Islamist policies.”

He said he believes Turkey has always been part of Europe and should be a true member of Europe. "I’m afraid the government has been making efforts to deviate Turkey’s Western direction.”

A professor of international politics and an expert on combatting terrorism, he denies ever being part of any illegal organisation or network.

“I have no idea when I could see a judge. My life and my family are under deathly risks and we need your support. Please help us,” he said.

According to the Bianet News site, the 330 recently dismissed academics were employed at 48 of Turkey’s 191 universities. The largest number of discharges were at Ankara University (78), Anadolu University (28), Yildiz Technical University (27) and Marmara University (23).

The rights-based journalism website, which is funded by the Swedish government, says 4,811 academics from 112 universities have been discharged by five statutory decrees declared during the State of Emergency. Sixteen of the academics have been returned to their duty by another statutory decree.

The largest number of discharges occurred at Süleyman Demirel University (193), Istanbul University (192), Gazi University (169) and Pamukkale University (164), Bianet reported.

Attempted lynchings

One of the 330 academics dismissed last week, Dr Eda Erdener, a visiting scholar in anthropology at Pomona College, United States, told University World News that academics had been subjected to mob violence and attempted lynchings in their offices by extremist Turkish nationalist students and local people.

“We did not know who was going to be attacked next,” she said, and the arbitrary nature of the decisions about who would be dismissed led hundreds to apply to international foundations for scholars at risk.

She said she had been forced to resign in March last year for signing the Academics for Peace petition in January and was dismissed from pubic service on 9 February and as a consequence lost the rights acquired with the job, which include “green passport, a pension, and a bank account from the university”.

The witchhunt against academics began six months before the coup attempt in July 2016, after 1,128 academics from 89 universities signed the petition in January last year calling for an end to military operations against civilian objects in Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey and the opening of a peace dialogue. The number of signatories later rose above 2,200.

Erdener said during military operations the Turkish Army attacked Kurdish settlements with heavy weapons normally used in combat. Populations in Kurdish cities were starved because of curfews that lasted for weeks. There was no electricity, no food, no water, no shelter and no way out.

She said that, according to data obtained by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, at least 338 civilians lost their lives after being fired on in their own homes, or as a result of stress during the curfew or from arbitrary shooting and harmful chemicals used against protesters. To cover this up, many corpses were buried without forensic medical examination.

“All these activities were a serious violation of the constitution and of international treaties signed by Turkey,” she said.

Yet the academic signatories of the petition faced “countless threats, mob violence and disciplinary investigations by our universities” and were banned from international travel.

'Pretext to silence opposition’

Following the failed coup attempt last July, academics have been among tens of thousands dismissed from public service jobs under emergency decrees.

President Erdogan has blamed the Gülenist movement – followers of a United States-based and reportedly moderate Muslim preacher who supports a network of schools and whose supporters have influence in all echelons of Turkish society – but opponents believe this is being used as a pretext to clamp down on opposition voices.

Candan Badem, associate professor of history at Munzur University in Tunceli, who was dismissed in a decree last September – writing in an article to be published by University World News on Sunday – said he was accused of being a Gülenist and a book by Gülen was found in his university office.

“This was like a bad joke because reading Gülen’s books is not a crime and I had used passages from that book against Gülen in social media,” he said.

His passport was cancelled, a block was placed on his credit cards, bank account and on his car, he said.

“I am still under legal investigation and the court still neither indicts me nor acquits me, keeping me in a state of suspension,” he says.

Badem said newly dismissed academics include some of the best professors from various fields of study, like for example, Constitutional Law Professor Ibrahim Kaboglu, who is critical of Erdogan’s plan to change the constitution to get drastic powers for himself. Another example is Professor Ozdemir Aktan, one of the best surgeons in Turkey, he said.

Evidence ‘unclear’

In November, when another decree ordered the dismissal of 242 academic staff and 942 higher education administrative staff on suspicion of connection to the coup attempt, the New York-based scholar rescue organisation, Scholars at Risk, said that it was concerned about the use of mass dismissals, expulsions, travel restrictions, evictions and other deprivations of rights against academic and administrative personnel, apparently based solely on suspicion of association with a particular organisation.

It also noted that “the evidentiary basis, if any, for claims that the scholars and administrative personnel were affiliated with the Gülen movement, or were involved with the coup attempt, is unclear”.

There are 191 universities in Turkey and 15 of them were closed by statutory decrees last year. There were 64,533 students and 2,805 academic members at those universities, Bianet reported.