HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Turkey: Government Targeting Academics - Dismissals, Prosecutions Create Campus C

Turkish riot policemen walk over academic gowns laid down during a protest against the dismissal of academics from universities in the Cebeci campus of Ankara University © 2017 Reuters/Umit Bektas

(Berlin) – 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 today.

“The Turkish government’s crackdown is targeting academics and damaging its universities” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “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.

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.

Human Rights Watch examined eight cases of academics dismissed from their posts. In the cases of those fired under emergency decrees, it was impossible to determine the reasons for their dismissal as the decrees include no evidence of alleged wrongdoing or individualized justifications. The decrees only refer to generalized alleged links to “terrorist organizations.”

Those fired cannot challenge their cases with their employers. An ad hoc commission the government established to review the mass dismissals of government employees is proceeding slowly. In the meantime, those affected have no right to work in government jobs, and many have been unable to find private sector work. In some cases, they lost health care coverage, and the government revoked their passports or froze their bank accounts. Family members have been fired from private sector jobs.

Scores of academics are being prosecuted on trumped-up terrorism charges. At least 13 who signed the Academics for Peace petition have been convicted of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization in individual trials since December 2017. Human Rights Watch reviewed case files or indictments in six of the cases against academics and found a lack of compelling evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Evidence cited in five cases included the use of legal bank accounts, sending their children to private schools, or travel and research associated with their work as academics.

Turkish authorities frequently rely on overbroad antiterrorism legislation and inadequate judicial independence to punish nonviolent activities. Human Rights Watch research has found that investigations and prosecutions for terrorism-related offenses in Turkey often lack concrete evidence and fail to adhere to due process.

Students who engage in campus protests can also face prosecution. 35 university students from Istanbul have been detained since March 22, 2018, after a peaceful anti-war protest on the campus of Boğaziçi University on March 19. They are charged with terrorism propaganda in connection with the protest, and 14 of the group are in pretrial detention.

Several academics interviewed said that the government and university administrations had intervened to seek to prevent academics from carrying out research or attending conferences on critical issues. One academic who wished to remain anonymous said that the university administration asked the academic to “be cautious” in choosing seminar and research topics, and said that that the administration regarded subjects pertaining to longstanding efforts by the Kurdish population to obtain greater language and political rights, and religious minorities in Turkey as “too sensitive at the moment.”

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. They said that Turkish universities are no longer places where critical debates, creative thinking, and the discussion of controversial ideas were possible. “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.”

“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.”

Dismissals of Academics without Due Process

Under the current state of emergency, put in place shortly after the coup attempt in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chairs the cabinet, which can pass emergency decrees without parliamentary scrutiny or the possibility of appeal to the constitutional court. Under a string of emergency decrees issued since July 2016, more than 150,000 public officials have been fired without due process, including more than 5,800 academics. According to government statements, the main target is employees suspected of ties with the Gülen movement, a religious movement headed by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.

The Turkish government describes the movement as the “Fethullahist terrorist organization” (FETÖ) and accuses it of being the main group responsible for the coup attempt. But Human Rights Watch has seen no evidence in relation to individual academics that would support the conclusion that they were involved in violence, plotting a coup, or other conduct that would justify their dismissal.

Moreover, it is clear that the purges target a much wider group of people, including critics of the government, and human rights defenders. The targeting of signatories of the January 2016 Academics for Peace petition is an example of this. More than 2,000 academics signed the petition. At least 378 of them have been dismissed from public universities and barred from public service under state of emergency decrees. Public and private universities fired at least 86 others without emergency decrees. Hundreds more are under disciplinary investigation.

In January 2017, following international criticism about the lack of due process in the mass dismissals, the government established an ad hoc commission to review decisions under the state of emergency. There is a right of further appeal, but mechanisms for redress and compensation are likely to take many years.

By mid-April more than 108,000 people had applied to the commission, but decisions have been issued in only 12,000 cases. The commission overturned the firing in only 310 of these cases, and it is unclear how many of the cases, overturned or not, involved academics.

Academics dismissed via emergency decree do not have the right to return to their old posts, even if the commission decides in their favor. Under a decree issued in August 2017, academics are preferably to be reinstated in universities that opened after 2006 and are outside Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. This means that the doors of all of Turkey’s prestigious universities will be closed to them.

In the meantime, those affected face other devastating consequences. They have no right to work in public service jobs. In several cases Human Rights Watch examined, they have been prevented from working in their chosen profession because they also face travel bans and have been publicly “blacklisted.” In at least five cases examined, the fired academics, labeled as “terrorists,” found it impossible to find any work at all.

In three cases, family members of academics fired by decree, such as partners and children, have been fired from their private sector jobs. At least three have lost their health care benefits. All of their passports have been confiscated, making it impossible to leave the country legally and seek employment abroad. The academics abroad left the country before being dismissed via emergency decree.

An associate professor of sociology, Bayram Erzurumluoğlu, was dismissed from Adıyaman University by emergency decree on September 1, 2016. On October 31, 2016, he was detained during a dawn raid on his home in Adıyaman on accusations of coup plotting and membership in an armed criminal organization.

The police questioned Erzurumluoğlu, who had been involved in the organizing of international student exchange programs, such as the European Erasmus Program, about his travels to partner universities abroad with Adıyaman University colleagues. They also questioned him about his account at Bank Asya, a bank associated with the Gülen movement that the authorities have since shut down.

Erzurumluoğlu said that under an agreement between the university and the bank, university employees had to use their bank card as a pass for public transportation, and to pay at the university cafeteria, and as their personnel ID card to be able to enter the campus. The police also asked him about “his aim” related to a sociological survey that had been prepared by one of his students as part of a homework assignment, and that included questions on the eventuality that the governing Justice and Development Party might perform poorly in the next elections.

Erzurumluoğlu was conditionally released on November 8, 2016, by an Adıyaman Peace Court. He has not been indicted but remains under criminal investigation. He has been unable to find work in Turkey or abroad, as he was banned from travelling abroad, and the commission has not yet completed his case.