Purge of academics has reached a 'staggering' scale – SAR

In the year since the attempted coup in Turkey, a “staggering” number of academics have faced criminal investigations, detentions, prosecutions, mass dismissal, expulsion and restrictions on travel, according to an open letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, signed by Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk or SAR, the New York-based scholar rescue network, who demanded a reversal of the measures.

On 13 July, 302 more academics were dismissed from their jobs under a new decree under the crackdown ordered after the failed coup attempt a year ago. On 10 July more than 40 academics and university workers were arrested at two Istanbul universities.

Quinn said the evidence strongly suggests academics are facing retaliation for the non-violent exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.

He said: “These actions are not only attacks on individuals, but on the higher education sector in Turkey and on Turkish society generally. If not quickly reversed, these actions will undermine Turkey’s status as an international centre for learning and intellectual exchange.”

Quinn urged Erdogan to “direct all necessary steps to reverse these dangerous and destructive actions”, in which more than 7,500 academics have been targeted and nearly 60,000 students have been displaced.

He implored the Turkish president to:
  • • Suspend any investigations, prosecutions, detentions, or other actions against individuals based solely on the non-violent exercise of the right to academic freedom, freedom of expression, or freedom of association;

  • • Ensure the restoration of status for those denied access to study or to their professions based on such conduct;

  • • Take the steps necessary to ensure that the State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission has the resources and independence needed to ensure just and swift resolution of wrongful dismissals and expulsions;

  • • Ensure the restoration of passports and the right to travel for those affected by the actions described above, including persons dismissed from their positions and their families.
Some of the academics have been targeted by the authorities in the search for anyone who could be linked to the Gülenist movement – followers of the moderate Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, USA – which is alleged to have been behind the coup attempt.

Others have been targeted because they signed a petition called “Academics for Peace”, published seven months before the coup attempt, which criticised Turkish military action in Kurdish civilian areas and called for a peace dialogue to end the conflict in the south-east.

Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag on 12 July said Western countries’ criticism of Turkey’s post-coup measures are “groundless, biased and aim to manipulate Turkey’s struggle against putschists”, Hurriyet Daily News reported.

He said: “They always talk about human rights, democracy and the will of the people, but when there was a coup in Turkey against democracy and human rights, democratic countries were silent until they were sure that the coup attempt was unsuccessful.”

The attempted coup on 15 July last year collapsed after thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the threat to Turkish democracy. More than 300 people were killed and 2,100 injured.

President Erdogan accused Gülen of being behind the coup – an allegation Gülen denies – and declared a State of Emergency, under which he has issued numerous decrees ordering the arrest of thousands of civilians and dismissals and restrictions on others, affecting 300,000 people, among them academics, civil servants, judges, journalists and human rights defenders.

Following an “Academics for Peace” petition published in January last year, all 1,128 signatories were placed under investigation and a large percentage were subsequently – mostly after the coup attempt – targeted with administrative, civil and criminal investigations, dismissals and expulsions, arrests and detentions, prosecutions and restrictions on travel. According to one report last week, 372 were fired by decree or termination of their contracts.

“The situation worsened dramatically following the government’ s declaration of a State of Emergency in July 2016, with today more than 7,500 higher education personnel targeted directly, and over 60,000 higher education scholars, administrators and students materially affected by government and institutional actions,” Quinn says in his letter.

Since the arrests of the petition’s signatories, SAR has verified at least 1,035 detentions or warrants issued for higher education personnel, with 776 higher education personnel and students physically detained (whether or not a warrant was involved).

At the same time, SAR understands that at least 393 higher education personnel have been formally subjected to criminal charges, which include: making terrorist propaganda; membership in a terrorist organisation; inciting people to hatred; insulting the Turkish nation; and membership in the Gülenist movement.

“The speed and scope of these actions and the related long-term detentions – often without charge – raise grave concerns about the objectivity and fairness of any investigation and proceedings,” Quinn said.

Mass dismissals

A second area that has affected large numbers of academics is the mass dismissals and expulsions.

On 23 July 2016, two days after the declaration of the State of Emergency, the state ordered 15 universities closed, displacing some 56,000 students and leaving 2,808 academic personnel unemployed, Quinn noted.

Since then, the state has issued seven separate decrees ordering the dismissals of higher education personnel and expulsions of students.

To date, these actions have rendered jobless some 8,039 academic personnel, as well as 1,193 administrative personnel.

Those individuals who have been permanently dismissed are also subject to a lifetime ban from applying to civil service positions, effectively ending their higher education careers in Turkey, Quinn said.

Further, three emergency decrees have ordered the expulsion of 285 students studying abroad. Those decrees also provided that any scholarships supporting their studies abroad were to be cancelled, and that any degrees or certificates obtained abroad would not be recognised in Turkey.

SAR is aware of only 98 reinstatements – fewer than 2% of the scholars, staff and students dismissed or expelled as a result of the emergency decrees.

“The decrees have had a particularly harsh impact on many smaller institutions, which have lost a large portion of their teaching and research faculties,” SAR said. “For example, reports indicate that approximately 50% of academic personnel at Munzer University, and nearly 40% of faculty at Mardin Artuklu University, have recently been dismissed.”

Quinn noted that Decree 685, issued on 23 January 2017, established an entity known as the State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission, creating a formal appeals process.

The commission is expected to begin receiving applications this Monday, 17 July. “To represent a meaningful change of course and limit further harm, the commission must receive sufficient resources, support and independence to rectify all recent wrongful dismissals and expulsions, and restore those targeted to their previous positions,” he said.

“The impacts of these actions go far beyond simple job losses. For the foreseeable future, they leave individual scholars unable to pursue their careers, to provide for their families, or even to travel outside of Turkey to seek jobs abroad,” he added.

He said dismissal of these scholars also denies Turkey’s higher education community substantial human and intellectual capital – losses that will compound over time, not only due to the loss of these scholars’ productive years of teaching and research, but also because the current targeting of higher education will lead fewer students to take up academic careers, and many academics still working in Turkey will likely seek opportunities elsewhere.

The short-term effects of the large-scale purge carried out by the Turkish government since the failed coup attempt a year ago include a 28% drop in research output of academics based in Turkey in 2017, according to a study published by Freedom for Academia, University World News reported earlier this month.

A state decree in September 2016 targeted 15,000 research assistants for their alleged links to the Gülen movement. They were part of an Assistant Professor Training Program (ÖYP) that was launched in 2010 to meet the need for academics in Turkey, Turkish Minute reported last week.

In addition to ending their professional lives, those dismissed – and their spouses – have been stripped of their passports, curtailing any possibility of mitigating the harms they suffer by attempting to continue their professions abroad, Quinn said.

The numbers affected by all these actions, “as staggering as they are, reflect only publicly available, verifiable information. The actual number of persons already affected is in all likelihood higher, and actions against higher education personnel continue,” he said.

Quinn said in the absence of material evidence to the contrary – evidence that goes beyond mere words and allegations – the actions against higher education institutions, scholars, staff and students “strongly suggest retaliation for the non-violent exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association”.

He said this is especially true of actions against individuals based solely on their public endorsement of the Academics for Peace petition or their alleged affinity for the so-called Gülenist movement.

“Further, the speed and scope of these actions raise grave concerns about the objectivity and fairness of any investigations and proceedings. These concerns are underscored in cases of mass dismissals by government decree, restrictions on travel imposed on persons dismissed from their positions, and similar restrictions imposed on their family members.”