Mass detention and dismissal of academics continues

A further 438 members of Turkey’s higher education community have faced criminal detentions, investigations and prosecutions since July. Some 698 have been dismissed or expelled from their institutions and subjected to restrictions on their ability to travel.

Scholars at Risk, or SAR, the New-York based scholar rescue organisation, has written to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey demanding an end to the “continuing, severe pressures on the higher education” sector in Turkey involving the “intentional targeting of thousands of higher education personnel and institutions” for investigations, dismissals and expulsions, arrests and detentions, prosecutions and restrictions on travel since July 2016.

SAR previously wrote to President Erdogan on 13 July 2017, providing detailed data on the pressures on Turkey’s higher education community since January 2016. Since then the pressures have continued unabated, the new letter says.

“We once again respectfully urge you to take all necessary steps to reverse these dangerous and destructive actions,” says the letter, signed by Robert Quinn, SAR’s executive director.

According to SAR, some 9,200 higher education personnel and students have now been targeted directly and more than 60,000 higher education scholars, administrators and students have been “materially affected by government and institutional actions”.

They represent one in five of the more than 300,000 people affected by the emergency decree, including also civil servants, judges, journalists and human rights defenders.

Investigations, detentions and prosecutions

The targeted actions include at least 1,691 detentions or warrants issued for higher education personnel and students following the publication of the Academics for Peace petition in January 2016 calling for an end to military action in civilian areas in south-east Turkey in operations against Kurdish militants.

Of these 1,236 have been physically detained, whether or not a warrant was issued. SAR said of those detained it had verified the release of only 143 to date.

At the same time, SAR understands that more than 600 higher education personnel have been formally subjected to criminal charges. These include making terrorist propaganda, membership of a terrorist organisation, inciting people to hatred, insulting the Turkish nation; and membership of the Gülenist movement.

The latter is the movement of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled moderate Islamist leader, who was once a political ally of Erdogan but has since been accused by the government of being behind the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, during which 255 people lost their lives.

Gülen strongly denies any involvement and there has been a lack of hard evidence linking either him personally or his movement in general to the attempt, despite anecdotal reports that some of individuals involved were Gülenists. Additionally, the coup attempt has not been linked to the Academics for Peace petition or the Kurdish issue.

In the SAR letter, Quinn said that, in the absence of material evidence to the contrary – evidence that goes beyond mere words and allegations – “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 investigations and proceedings, and strongly suggest retaliation for the non-violent exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association.”

Mass dismissals and expulsions

A second area of concern is the number of 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 60,000 students and leaving 2,808 academic personnel unemployed. Since then the state has issued nine separate decrees ordering the dismissals of higher education personnel and expulsions of students.

To date these actions have rendered jobless some 8,535 academic personnel as well as at least 1,349 administrative staff, SAR noted.

Individuals who are permanently dismissed are subject to a lifetime ban from applying to civil service positions, effectively ending their higher education careers in Turkey.

Three emergency decrees have ordered the expulsion of 273 students studying abroad. The same decrees 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 129 reinstatements, fewer than 2% of scholars, staff and students dismissed or expelled as a result of emergency decrees.

SAR said that again the speed and scope of the action on dismissals raises grave concerns about the fairness and objectivity of the investigations and proceedings.

The decrees have had a particularly harsh impact on many smaller institutions, where the loss of junior and senior faculty has upended many research and teaching activities, SAR noted.

Quinn said in the letter: “The impacts of these actions go beyond simply job losses. For the foreseeable future, they leave individuals unable to pursue their careers, to provide for their families, or even to travel outside of Turkey to seek jobs abroad.

“The dismissal of these scholars also denies Turkey’s higher education community substantial human and intellectual capital – losses that will compound over time.

“Not only will the community lose these scholars’ productive years of teaching and research, but 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.”

Restrictions on travel

A third area of concern is the restrictions imposed on travel. 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, SAR said.

At least five of these former university personnel have reportedly been detained during their attempts to flee Turkey and seek safety abroad.

The state of emergency was extended by three months for a fifth time in October 2017, “laying the foundation for further administrative and criminal actions targeting higher education, among others”, the letter says.

A key problem faced by those charged is that while an appeal body, the State of Emergency Appeals Commission, has been established to allow victims of wrongful terminations and other errors to seek redress, only a “tiny fraction” of the total number of applications filed have been reviewed since it began receiving them last July. Appeal decisions had been made on just 300 out of more than 100,000 pending applications, SAR said.

“This situation gives rise to serious doubts about the possibility that members of the higher education community, among others, will be able to obtain any address whatsoever, let alone a full hearing, before their professional lives are irrevocably harmed,” Quinn said.

“We again call on the authorities to take any available action to quickly rectify all wrongful dismissals and expulsions, and restore those targeted to their previous positions, whether through the commission or other lawful means.”

SAR is an international network of more than 500 universities and colleges in 38 countries dedicated to protecting the human rights of scholars and their communities around the world, and to raising awareness, understanding of and respect for the principles of academic freedom.