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Turkey: Ankara Intimidating Academics, Restricting Free Speech

Erdoğan stands by the arrests of Kurdish activists, including nearly 8,000 people who have been detained and arrested since early 2009. (Photo: Office of Turkish Prime Minister)

With the recent arrest of a leading academic, concern is spreading among intellectuals in Turkey that they will have to think twice before voicing criticism of the government in the future.

Busra Ersanli, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Marmara University, was arrested on October 28 and charged under Turkey's sweeping anti-terror laws for allegedly supporting the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, among others.

Until her arrest, Ersanli was advising the country’s main Kurdish political party, the Peace and Democracy Party or BDP, a legally registered party, on constitutional reform, a topic currently under debate in parliament. She is now in custody awaiting trial, which is not expected to start for at least a year. If convicted, she faces 20 years in prison.

At a November 4 protest, academics at Istanbul's elite Bosphorus University described Ersanli’s arrest as a warning sign of more trouble to come for free-speech rights in Turkey.

"This is a friend of ours. She is an academician. She is for resolving conflicts non-violently. We are very, very worried about the consequences," said one demonstrator.

Ersanli’s detention is also part of a new trend for the country's universities that threatens academic freedom, claimed Bosphorus University sociologist Ayfer Bartu. She added that one graduate student from her department has been detained as part of a terror crackdown. Students from other university departments have likewise been ensnared in the government’s widely cast net, according to Candan.

"There is a lot of self-censorship that is going on at the universities,” Bartu said. “Some people are worried now because of the research they are doing, because it is now becoming so easy to mark people. They are creating this reality that anyone who even talks about the Kurdish issue is actually a supporter of the PKK. It didn't use to be like that."

Prosecutors claim that the detentions are a necessary part of their battle against what they portray as a terrorist conspiracy hatched by the Democratic Society Congress, or KCK. The government asserts the KDK acts as the urban wing of the PKK. Clashes between the Turkish army and PKK have intensified this year, underscored by the death of 24 soldiers in a single October attack.

As part of the state’s KCK investigation, nearly 8,000 people have been detained since early 2009, including Kurdish mayors, trade unionists, human rights workers as well as academics and students, human rights advocates say.

Within the past several months alone, since the June general election, more than 1,000 people have been jailed as part of the probe, they claim.

Yasmin Congar, deputy editor of the independent, whistle-blowing newspaper Taraf, suggests that officials believe they have sufficient evidence to justify a mass-detention strategy. "They have picked up communication that helped the armed PKK members to carry out their attacks, their raids, and, so, if you see legal members of a legal party as accomplices to an armed activity, there is not much way out for you as judiciary of the country or as the government of this country,” Congar noted.

The KCK-related arrests have been made under Turkey's sweeping anti-terror laws, introduced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.

Critics counter that the investigation has little do with any fight against terrorism. "Seventy-five hundred pages on the indictment list, but not one mention of any weapon or any violence, seems to suggest those who say it's a series of political trials against Kurdish activists might be right,” said Richard Howitt, a British member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

In November 3 comments to reporters, Prime Minister Erdoğan pledged that “[e]verything will come to light once the indictment [against the KCK] is drawn up.” The prime minister also derided those opposed to the arrests, saying critics “are defending the KCK without seriously researching these things.”

The government these days appears to be paying special attention to what’s being said on university campuses. Officials have demonstrated particular intolerance of criticism from those in academia. In 2010, for example, three students who held up a banner calling for free university education during a rally for the prime minister, were accused of being members of a far-left terrorist group and held in a maximum security jail for 17 months until the charges were finally dropped.

The same year, a policy from Turkey’s era of military rule was reintroduced that gives police unrestricted access to university campuses. Dr. Yusuf Ziya Özcan, president of The Council of Higher Education, which oversees Turkey’s universities, has suggested that universities set aside designated areas for the use of law enforcement officials. Previously, police had to be invited onto a campus by the university rector.

Özcan made the claim that a police presence would promote freedom of expression, rather than stifle it. “Free thought cannot emerge from an environment that is not secure,” Özcan asserted.

For many Turkish students, there’s no question that cops are a buzzkill when it comes to publicly debating social and political issues. "We are afraid of police forces on campus,” said one student, who, naturally, spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of official reprisals. “I don’t want to talk on mobile phones with my friends about political subjects because somebody can hear me. So, all these developments make young people afraid."

According to official data, the government is tapping the telephones of nearly 100,000 people in connection with the ongoing anti-terror investigation. Evidence against the detained professor, Ersanli, is believed to include recorded telephone conversations.

The atmosphere of fear created by these measures is not confined to students, cautioned Nur Mardin, a professor at Bosphorus University's Peace Education and Research Center. "Academic freedom is essential for any sort of democracy,” he said. “If we don’t stand up for the freedom of thought of people who are innocent . . . it will end up frightening everybody and we don’t know where it will lead.”

Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

Turkey: Ankara Intimidating Academics, Restricting Free Speech

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