HRW:  Turkey should halt assault on academic freedom

by Wladimir van Wilgenburg    


ERBIL - The Turkish government’s dismissal of thousands of academics and the prosecution of hundreds more, together with interference with academics’ work and student protests, is leading to self-censorship and hollowing out academic freedom in the country, Human Rights Watch said on Monday, calling on Turkey to stop it’s assault on academic freedom.

"The Turkish government’s crackdown is targeting academics and damaging its universities,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Academics and students should be free to express, teach, and research controversial or critical ideas without risking dismissal or imprisonment.”

The government has carried out mass firings of academics without due process, using dubious allegations of links to terrorism or the July 2016 coup plot. It is also investigating and prosecuting academics on trumped-up terrorism charges. The authorities are interfering with student protests on campus, and prosecuting student activists. And officials are interfering with academic research on controversial topics, HRW insists.

Together these actions are creating a climate of fear and self-censorship on campus, and breaching Turkey’s obligations under human rights law to respect and protect academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 academics from Turkey. Seven were fired under emergency decrees issued after the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. One of them has left the country and is working at a university abroad. Thirteen are under criminal investigation or facing criminal trials, and one has been convicted and filed an appeal.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed four university students from different universities, including one doctoral candidate, and four lawyers, three of whom represent university students in criminal investigations. Human Rights Watch also examined interrogation protocols, court rulings, indictments, and media reports.

“We are very afraid,” one student said. “Our thoughts, our opinions, and our bodies are now targets of violence from all sides. We now don’t only think twice, but three or four times before we write or say something.”

Since the 2016 coup attempt, more than 5,800 academics have been dismissed from public universities under emergency decrees, as part of a general crackdown on public employees with alleged ties to “terrorist organizations.”

At least 378 of them had signed a January 2016 Academics for Peace petition condemning the government’s draconian security operations in the Kurdish southeast. Another 38 academics from public universities and 48 from private universities have been dismissed by their universities and were told by university officials that it was for signing the petition.

At least 265 academics who signed the Academics for Peace petition are on trial, and hundreds more have been investigated on charges of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization. The January 2016 petition condemned the Turkish government’s security operations against the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) youth movement in cities of southeast Turkey. The government crackdown had a devastating impact on the Kurdish civilian population. The petition has now been signed by more than 2,000 academics in Turkey and hundreds outside the country who now fear prosecution.

Identical accusations against each of the academics prosecuted on charges related to signing the petition are outlined in a 17-page indictment, but each proceeding is to be separate and the prosecutor has not opted to indict all the academics in one process. Trials started on December 5, 2017. As of April 26, 2018, court hearings had begun for 200 academics, and 12 were given what is referred to in Turkey as “deferred’ prison sentences.

Such sentences are not carried out and will be removed from their records if for a certain period no re-offense is committed. Re-offenses potentially include any public expression of opinion critical of government policies, participation in demonstrations or protests, or the publication of academic work on topics deemed off-limits by the Turkish authorities.

Many professors and students said that the crackdown on all facets of university life has led to widespread self-censorship and a stagnant academic environment. “Fear and self-censorship are like smoke,” said a senior academic who wished to remain anonymous. “It seeps everywhere, and it gets thicker every day. We cannot breathe anymore.”

Moreover, the government and university administrations have intervened to prevent academics from carrying out research or from attending conferences on critical issues. Especially if its related to the Kurdish issue.

In one case, the university ethics commission delayed for four months a request for the required permission for a six-month research project related to the Kurdish issue on the grounds that the research topic was too sensitive. Kerem Altıparmak said he was refused permission on five occasions to leave the country to attend conferences on international human rights and the state of emergency in Turkey.

An academic who wished to remain anonymous said that the administration at their university had begun to interfere in publication topics and was asking staff not to organize conferences, workshops, or panels on “sensitive issues” so as not to “anger the government.” At least two academics said that senior academic staff refused to supervise student theses on “sensitive” topics such as the Kurdish issue.

The government crackdown has created an environment of pervasive self-censorship in Turkish universities. Both academics and students repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that certain topics cannot be discussed at all, such as the Turkish government’s attacks on Afrin. In some cases, private universities asked teaching staff not to organize conferences, panels, or seminars on topics considered “sensitive” or critical of the Turkish government.

“Universities are in a dire state. The quality of academia has significantly decreased. Nobody can speak out freely and without fear anymore,” Yücel Demirer, a political scientist who signed the Academics for Peace petition and was dismissed via an emergency decree from his university in Kocaeli, told HRW.

“One major role of universities is to provide a forum for critical debates and scholarship on controversial topics,” Williamson said. “Turkey’s assault on academic freedom negatively affects not only its universities, but also society at large.”