Higher education under ‘near-constant attack’ – SAR

State and university authorities in Turkey are continuing to take sweeping and targeted measures – including investigations, detentions, prosecutions, firings and travel restrictions against academics – that pose an “unprecedented threat” to the higher education sector, according to Scholars at Risk or SAR.

Since 1 September 2016, 7,023 academic and administrative personnel in Turkey have been targeted for dismissal from their positions, and 294 students have been expelled in accordance with a series of decrees issued under a state of emergency that continues to be extended, according to Scholars at Risk’s annual monitoring report, Free to Think 2017.

At least 990 scholars, staff and students have been detained or arrested, with warrants served for at least 318 more. All but five reports of such violations in Turkey are in connection with support for the January 2016 Academics for Peace petition, demanding an end to military operations against Kurdish militants in civilian areas in south-eastern Turkey, or accusations related to last year’s 15 July attempted coup.

SAR says since the petition Turkey’s higher education community has been “under near-constant attack”.

“The speed and scale of these actions suggest a disregard for due process rights and for the role of higher education, inquiry and expression in democratic society.

“In addition to the tragic effects on the immediate victims and their families, these actions risk irreparable harm to the reputation and quality of Turkey’s higher education institutions.

“Tens of thousands of scholars, students and staff are unable to carry out the research and training needed to drive the country’s future,” the report says.

SAR has called on the Turkish authorities to reverse the actions they have taken and has urged the Turkish higher education sector and international higher education leaders to press for the reversal.

In the past year SAR has reported 49 incidents involving detentions, arrests, warrants and wrongful prosecutions of at least 1,308 scholars, staff and students in Turkey.

In most incidents, authorities have sought the detention or prosecution of scholars, staff and students on suspicion of having alleged connections with Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric self-exiled in the United States who Turkish authorities claim was responsible for the coup attempt, the SAR report said.

“The evidentiary basis supporting these allegations has often been unclear or undisclosed to the public,” the report said. “This has been of most concern in cases of mass detentions.”

Examples have included an incident on 2 September 2016, when security forces took into custody 15 academic and administrative personnel from Mustafa Kemal University, including its rector, Hüsnü Salih Güder.

Three days later, 11 academic personnel from Sakarya University were similarly detained on unknown grounds.

On 2 November 2016, authorities issued warrants for 137 academics, later detaining at least 73 following searches of their homes.

“It is unclear how many remain in detention or what evidence has been presented for their prosecution,” the report said.

In other incidents related to the attempted coup, the basis for detentions and arrests has ranged from the alleged use of a secure smartphone messaging application, to institutional affiliations, to acts of peaceful expression and association.

Since 27 September 2016 at least 555 university personnel and students have been taken into custody or named in warrants on suspicion of using ByLock, an encrypted smartphone messaging application that state authorities claim was used by organisers of the coup attempt.

On 26 September 2017, the day the SAR report was published, the Supreme Court in Turkey ruled that evidence of downloading ByLock is sufficient evidence of membership of FETO, or the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation, a name assigned by the government to the Gülen movement, which it alleges is behind the coup attempt, although Gülen denies it.

Gülen’s worldwide social movement is best known for its support for primary and secondary schools, particularly in Turkey, and is described as an influential moderate Islamic movement that preaches religious tolerance.

The ByLock suspects include 72 personnel from Süleyman Sah University for whom detention warrants were issued on 5 May 2017, and 27 former academic personnel from Dokuz Eylül University who were detained on 30 May 2017, accused both of using ByLock and of holding accounts at Bank Asya, which was founded by followers of Fethullah Gülen. The bank was closed down by state financial regulators shortly after the coup attempt.

One academic, the economist Mehmet Altan, along with his brother Ahmet Altan, a prominent journalist, was detained on 10 September last year, and questioned after criticising the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on television the day before the coup.

They were accused by the public prosecutor’s office of giving “subliminal messages suggesting a military coup” and of having “threatened” the government and president.

They have since been charged with “attempting to remove the constitutional order” and “committing a crime on behalf of an armed terrorist group without being a member of it”. At the time of publication, they remained in detention, pending the outcome of their next hearing. If convicted, they could face life imprisonment.

Leading scholars detained

“Scholars detained or facing prosecution include high-profile cases that have become symbols of the purge’s impact in Turkey and around the world,” SAR reported.

One of these is prominent sociologist Professor Istar Gözaydin, detained along with 11 colleagues from the now-closed Gediz University. They were detained and later arrested on terrorism-related charges.

In protest at her arrest and detention, which authorities justified based on a review of her scholarly work, Gözaydin began a hunger strike that attracted widespread media attention and led to calls for her release. On 30 March 2017 – 100 days into her hunger strike – she was released and placed under a travel ban.

While no longer in custody, she is expected to return to court on 12 January 2018 to face charges of “being a member of a terrorist organisation”.

Others have been detained or purged for signing the Academics for Peace petition, which relates to operations against Kurds.

For instance, professors Esra Mungan, Kivanc Ersoy, Muzaffer Kaya and Meral Camci, were arrested in March 2016 after organising a press conference to affirm their support for the petition. After five court hearings, while the Minister of Justice considers a public prosecutor’s request to change the charges from “making terrorist propaganda” to “insulting the Turkish nation”, they are now waiting for their next hearing in December.

Meanwhile, Serkan Golge, a US-Turkish physicist at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the University of Houston, who had been detained in August 2016 and placed in solitary confinement after an estranged family member informed the authorities that he was a spy for the US Central Intelligence Agency, has since been charged with being a member of the Gülenist movement.

The charge reportedly relates to the fact that he previously studied at Gülen-affiliated educational institutions in Turkey and the allegation that a US one-dollar bill was found at his family’s home. State authorities are reported to have interpreted certain serial numbers on the dollar bill as indicating membership and rank in Gülen’s movement. If convicted he could face up to 15 years in prison, SAR reported.

SAR said a growing number of scholars like Golge have been held in detention for prolonged periods of time.

Factors contributing to this may include the fact that Turkey’s judiciary has itself suffered dismissals and detentions of thousands of judges and public prosecutors on terrorism-related charges, SAR suggests.

“The judiciary may lack the capacity to meet the unprecedented case volume; judges may also be hesitant to proceed with cases in such a contentious environment. Similarly, there may be heightened difficulties in identifying legal counsel willing to represent scholars facing terrorism-related charges, due to the risk of detention for lawyers taking up the cases.”

Hearing delays may also be the result of haste in issuing warrants and making arrests without substantial evidence, requiring investigations and attempts to gather evidence after the fact.

On 25 August this year an Emergency Decree, number 694, increased these concerns by extending the maximum pre-trial detention period for individuals detained based on terrorism-related allegations from five to seven years, SAR noted.

Crackdown on protests against dismissals

The SAR report also documents how state and university authorities have cracked down on faculty, staff and students peacefully protesting against mass dismissals and other actions against the higher education sector.

The best known example is the case of Nuriye Gulmen, a professor of literature at Selcuk University, detained and arrested along with Semih Ozakca, a primary school teacher in Mardin, on the 76th day of their hunger strike protest against a 6 January decree that ordered their dismissal along with more than 6,000 other civil servants.

The pair had been involved in a sit-in in front of the Human Rights Monument in Ankara from November, and in March, while detained, went on a permanent hunger strike.

The pair continue to be held in prison, having been charged with “being members of a terrorist organisation”. They attended their first hearing on 14 September, 190 days into their hunger strike, despite the damaging effect on their organs and tissues, and by Friday had reached their 205th day of their hunger strike.

Since 1 September 2016, 5,717 academic personnel and 1,306 administrative personnel from at least 115 universities have been ordered dismissed by government decree, on suspicion of being connected with the Gülen movement and of participating in the coup attempt.

The decrees further provide that personnel listed therein are banned for life from taking civil service positions (which includes academic positions in state institutions) and are to have their passports invalidated indefinitely.

“The decree orders have effectively eliminated future academic employment prospects within and outside of Turkey,” SAR said. “The stigma surrounding the terrorism-related allegations on which the orders are based have kept private higher education institutions from considering these scholars and administrators as candidates for employment.”

SAR points out that in addition to the immediate harm to the targeted personnel, the state-ordered dismissals have had debilitating effects on staffing levels at institutions. At Suleyman Demirel University and Gazi University, for example, 240 and 224 personnel were dismissed respectively.

“Across Turkey’s higher education institutions, these dismissals have left a growing number of courses without instructors, research projects have been disrupted or abandoned, and students have lost advisers to oversee their theses instruction.”

Emergency decrees have also been used to expel students. Four of them ordered the expulsion of 285 students who were studying abroad at the time, mostly in the US, United Kingdom, Canada and Germany. They also cancelled their financial aid and provided that any degrees or certificates they obtained abroad would not be recognised in Turkey, imperilling their ability to study, work or even return safely to Turkey, SAR reported.

Acts of expression

Many academics have been dismissed for acts of expression or association, most notably for signing the Academics for Peace petition, including half of the 330 academic personnel listed in decree 686.

But dismissals and expulsions have also been imposed by the Higher Education Council or YÖK and university authorities.

One academic at Cukurova University who was publicly denounced by an employee as a terrorist because he had signed the petition and was allegedly affiliated to a pro-Kurdish opposition party, was dismissed from his course. He then found that other universities he applied to join would not employ him. Fearing he had been “blacklisted by [YÖK]”, he committed suicide by jumping off the seventh floor of a block of flats.

To date 6,922 higher education personnel have been barred from travelling abroad to seek alternative employment or participate in academic conferences and other forms of international collaboration. The same provision applies to the spouses of dismissed personnel.

‘Reverse the dangerous course’

SAR has demanded that the Turkish authorities take all necessary actions to “reverse the dangerous course charted against the higher education sector”.

It called on them to fulfil all constitutional and international human rights obligations, releasing all wrongfully detained individuals, and ensuring due process for all who are facing prosecution or are in the midst of appealing proceedings.

SAR called on university leaders and YÖK to press the authorities to accelerate the reversal of actions: to “suspend any investigations, prosecutions or other pending disciplinary measures; and to ensure due process for all victims under prosecution or in appeals proceedings”.

And it called on international state and higher education authorities to press Turkish authorities to “remedy the above violations and demonstrate publicly their commitment to academic freedom and human rights”.