Turkey’s authoritarian shift has been unmistakable this past year. Following the coup attempt in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purge of state institutions has led to mass dismissals, including over 8,000 academics. Similarly, over 2,000 schools, dormitories and universities have now been shut down, causing great concern for Turkish education.
Nuriye Gulmen, a professor of literature, and Semih Ozakca, a primary school teacher, were both fired following the issuing of emergency decree 675 by Erdogan’s government. Shortly afterwards the pair joined forces demanding that academics across Turkey get their jobs back. Since they began protesting over six months ago with the slogan “I want my job back”, Gulmen and Ozakca have been detained by Turkish authorities over 30 times, most recently on 22 May. It is being reported that they will be tried for “membership of a terror organisation”.
The pair embarked on a hunger strike on 9 March 2017, which is now in its 90th day. While their story has now gained much international attention, they have little recognition from their own government.
“Amid a nationwide crackdown on freedom of expression, a hunger strike is the form Nuriye and Semih have chosen to protest the dire situation faced by academics in Turkey,” Index on Censorship’s head of advocacy Melody Patry said. “Index calls for their immediate release and for all charges against them to be dropped.”
Due to the massive number of arrests of journalists, academics and others within the last year, there is a serious backlog in the Turkish courts which means it could be a year from now before their case is even heard.
After protesting in various forms, from collecting signatures, distributing flyers and going door to door to share their story, Gulmen and Ozakca found little success. Instead, they were continuously detained by authorities before being released soon after.
Throughout their current hunger strike, there has been a significant deterioration in their health, and Ozakca has lost over 37 pounds from a diet consisting of salt water and sugar solutions with a single B vitamin. Gulmen says she experienced heartburn and a drastic drop in blood pressure which then lead to aching muscles, difficulty moving, loss of tissue, sensitivity to light and trouble concentrating. Eventually, the pair experienced severe difficulty walking as well as muscle atrophy, and are now both confined to wheelchairs.
This has not, however, hindered their hope of victory in their battle with the government. In a video released earlier in May, Gulmen stated that the solidarity and support of the public was making her feel better and that the pair’s “resistance is continuing and we will not stop until we gain our rights again.”
Similarly, they stated their latest detention will not halt their hunger strike, as they promised to continue it in prison.
The solidarity and support, which they have expressed thanks for, has come in many forms. David Harvey, professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, released a video providing support in which he said: “I want to express my solidarity with my friends and colleagues who are on a hunger strike in Turkey. I think that the sooner we enter a democratic process in Turkey, the better. I support all the actions made for this purpose with all my heart.” Turkish singer, Sezen Aksu, has also offered support and called on the Turkish government to take action and “listen to their voices”
Over 145,000 public workers have been fired since the failed coup, resulting in an array of protests and public demonstrations by activists and the general public throughout the world. Many Turkish public workers have protested on their own behalf in an attempt to regain their jobs and draw attention to the government crackdown.
Many, including Efe Sevin, a Turkish post-doctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, believe the coup has become an excuse for Erdogan to do anything he wants, including stamping out opponents and potential opponents by labelling them as enemies of the state and members of terrorist organisations.
“Erdogan is very dismissive of intellectual capital and opposition,” Sevin added. “The only reason one may oppose him is if they have some secret/hidden agenda to overthrow the government or they are terrorists or they are supported by foreign powers to do so.”
Thinking about the overall impacts of these dismissals on Turkish academia depresses Sevin both personally and professionally depressed. “Especially with the most recent decrees that dismissed peace petition signatories that had no known ties with Gulen, I think ‘will there be a new decree with my name on it?’ is a fear all Turkish faculty members share.”
“Even though it is becoming more and more difficult to defend academic freedom under the current regime, we should not pretend that Erdogan took over an academic freedom utopia,” Sevin said. “Especially after the coup in 1980 and the establishment of Council on Higher Education, academic freedom was at best questionable in Turkey.”
Similarly to Gulmen and Ozakca, one of Turkey’s most prominent academic reformers, Kemal Guruz, was sentenced to thirteen years and eleven months in prison by a criminal court in Turkey on 5 August 2013. His ordeal began in 2009 when he was accused of being a member of a secret terrorist organisation and ”reached a climax” in 2012 when a further charge of attempting to forcibly overthrow the government was levelled at him.
Guruz, who served 438 days of his sentence before being released, told Index: “The two cases, though seeming to have fizzled out, are still continuing in courts. I use the qualifier ‘seeming to’ because you never know how things will turn out in the Turkish courts of today.”
“All of the prosecutors who prepared the indictments against me and all but one of the judges who presided over my trials in the past are either in jail or fired or have fled the country,” he added. “I understand what is going on today is a struggle between the legitimate government and the Gulenists who appear to have attempted a coup last summer, but I must add that the two sides were in cahoots in the past, especially in my two court cases.”
“Apparently, both sides hate my me for my staunchly secular and pro-Western stand.”
As Gulmen and Ozakca’s hunger strike continues, efforts to get the Turkish government to acknowledge them are growing more urgent. Index urges prominent public figures to follow the actions of David Harvey and speak out on Nuriye’s and Semih’s behalf in the form of a short video expressing solidarity.