War abroad, repression at home: Turkey’s academics and students caught up in new wave of arrests

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”99469″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Since Turkey launched a military operation in Afrin, northern Syria, in January, state repression against critical voices has escalated once more. Hundreds of Turkish citizens who expressed their opposition to war, massacres and the displacement of Kurdish civilians have been arrested.

As with two years ago, when a petition by academics against the ongoing war in the Kurdish region was released, demanding peace has been deemed as supporting terror by the government and the pro-governmental media.

On 26 February 2018 a statement from the Ministry of Interior confirmed that 845 people were detained for criticising Turkey’s Afrin operation — code-named Operation Olive Branch — on social media and taking part in protests. Each week now brings new arrests on similar grounds, with students and academics caught up in the wave of repression.

In early February two academics, Onur Hamzaoğlu and Serdar Başçetin, were arrested. Hamzaoğlu is a doctor well known for his research into the correlation between industrial pollution and cancer in Kocaeli Province. He was dismissed from Kocaeli University, along with other signatories of the petition, by an emergency-decree after the attempted coup in July 2016. Hamzaoğlu is a co-founder of the Kocaeli Solidarity Academy and a co-spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK), a union left-wing parties and civil society organisations, formed in 2011 with the aim of recreating politics and promoting a democratic society against social, ethnic, religious and gender discrimination. He was arrested on 9 February before the HDP Congress and is still detained, together with dozens of party members.

Serdar Başçetin was a research assistant who was fired from Erzincan University by emergency decree. He was arrested in Antalya on 13 February for his support to Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça during their hunger strikes and his posts on Afrin on social media. On 29 March he was acquitted of all charges at the first hearing.

Students at Boğaziçi University, one of the leading higher education institutions in the country, known for its autonomy and liberal traditions, have also come under attack. The so-called “Afrin delight” incident started on 19 March when pro-governmental students opened a stand on campus to distribute Turkish delights in honour of the Afrin expedition and the Turkish soldiers who lost their lives there. Tension raised when students carrying a banner reading “No delight for occupation and massacre” protested against the stand and both groups started to fight. What could have remained an incident indicative of the political tensions that exist between students turned into a pretext for a wide police operation on campus. Arrests began on 22 March when five students were rounded-up in the early morning in the dormitories and homes. A press statement organised on the North Campus condemning these arrests gave way to a violent police intervention and further arrests.

In the days that followed president Erdogan himself condemned the “no delight” students, calling them terrorists and adding that these “communists” and “traitors” would not be given right to education. Academics were warned by the president that there would be consequences if they co-operated with these students.

Some students reported being kept for long hours in a police van, severely beaten, insulted and, for some of them, sexually assaulted before being released. Since then, police have been patrolling the campus, leading to fresh arrests. Some of those arrested weren’t even involved in the initial incident. On 3 April, when 15 Boğaziçi students were brought before Çağlayan courthouse, ten were sentenced to pre-trial detention. For their anti-war slogans, they were accused of spreading terrorist propaganda. They remain in prison.

This repression came as no surprise. On 7 January, while speaking at the university on the invitation of a conservative alumni association, Erdogan had criticised the university in the presence of the rector for not being “local and national” enough. Yet Boğaziçi’s loss of autonomy had actually started much earlier. In November 2016, showing no consideration for the summer elections that had seen the previous rector re-elected with more than 80% of votes, Erdogan appointed professor Mehmed Özkan, a Boğaziçi academic who hadn’t even been a candidate in the election. Despite protests by a small group of academics and students, Özkan’s election was greeted with relief by the majority of academics, trusting his promise to protect the liberal tradition of the university and its academic staff. Academic freedom and freedom of expression have come under joint attack from the government and the university administration.

In March 2017 I was dismissed from Boğaziçi, along with professor Abbas Vali, for signing the petition for peace. The Higher Education Council revoked our work permit and the university cancelled our contracts. We were singled out as the two foreign signatories of the petition. Before us, Murat Sevinç, an academic dismissed by emergency-decree from Ankara University, had already been compelled to stop his part-time teaching at Boğaziçi. The rector’s justification for our dismissal was the duty to obey orders – the universal excuse of civil servants trying to escape their responsibilities – and the need to protect the institution against further attacks. Fortunately, this view was challenged by some supportive colleagues and an extraordinary mobilisation of students from the history department who set up a tent throughout the Spring term on the North Campus, where they attempted to raise awareness of our dismissal by inviting academics to participate in outdoor lectures and workshops.

Yet it was already clear by then that the attacks against critical academics across the country and the appointment of a pro-governmental rector had dramatically shrunk the space for critique and opposition on campus. As with elsewhere in Turkey, fear of repression and a disillusionment with the possibility for change grew, and with it, self-censorship spread among academics and students.

Since then, things have only worsened for critical academics and students across the country. In October 2017 the Ministry of Justice made public that more than 36,000 students were detained in Turkey, raising to nearly 70,000 when open university students are included. While the number of students currently detained is likely to be even higher, these figures reflect the heavy price paid by critical students, deprived of their liberty and their right to education for expressing their opposition to state policy. Meanwhile, the trial against the Academics for Peace is ongoing in Istanbul and several academics have already been sentenced to a 15-months suspended prison sentence for spreading terrorist propaganda because they signed the 2016 petition. On 4 April, professır Füsun Üstel, from Galatasaray University,  another academic was given a 15-month prison sentence, with the right to appeal the decision.

Aside from the purges, the state authorities encourage a culture of denunciation through dedicated online platforms, where complaints can lead to a police or administrative investigation. The Education Council relentlessly fights against the remaining spaces of academic freedom, relying on the active complicity of most universities’ administrative boards. Both academics’ right to critique and students’ right to education are under threat. After the Boğaziçi incident, the Higher Education Council announced that they considered adopting new disciplinary procedures against students. The same day, in a statement published on Boğaziçi University website, the rectorate denounced terror, welcomed police intervention on campus and announced disciplinary procedure for students who protested against the Afrin expedition, cynically referring to the university’s commitment to “freedom of expression” of the other camp.

While an international petition now calls for solidarity with Boğaziçi students, academics and students must find ways to stand together for a free and diverse university, despite the threats, arrests and intimidation.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523355691217-4bb55336-d4a1-10″ taxonomies=”8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

İshak Karakaş: Imprisoned for tweeting about Turkey’s Afrin operation


İshak Karakas (Photo: Ahmet Tulgar)

İshak Karakas (Photo: Ahmet Tulgar)

İshak Karakaş, the editor-in-chief of a local Istanbul weekly Halkın Nabzı, is an early riser. He is usually up before dawn and back from a long walk, which he takes with an unlikely group of friends from the neighbourhood, by 8 am. This is when he starts checking the news of the day over breakfast while posting impassioned tweets about the morning’s reports.

On 20 January the Turkish military launched an operation into Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in Syria, arguing that the Kurdish forces in the region are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation. Karakaş, like many others, took to Twitter to criticise the military incursion. He did so using the account @ishakkakarakas_, which has since been closed by his son and lawyer Uğur Karakaş.

“There is not a single Islamic State gang in Afrin. Why are you telling lies?” he asked Turkey’s politicians, who have claimed that the Kurdish forces in Syria are actually ISIS militants. “Don’t believe the TV’s propaganda on Afrin,” he told fellow citizens in another tweet. He also retweeted a post claiming that civilians had been killed in the region at the hands of the Turkish military.

Then they came for him.

“It was about midnight. My dad was sleeping. I wasn’t home, though my mother was. The police came banging on the door; they said they had a search warrant,” says Karakaş, an Istanbul-based defence attorney. His father was arrested on 26 January on charges of “spreading terror propaganda” through Twitter. He is now in Silivri Prison, with no indictment in sight.

A country with no humour

Karakaş certainly wasn’t the only one to feel the ire of the Turkish state at war. According to the Turkish interior ministry, as of 27 February, 845 people had been detained by police for criticising the Afrin operation (or “spreading propaganda of a terror organisation” as the ministry prefers to phrase it) which Turkey has officially named “Operation Olive Branch”. The ministry hasn’t said how many of those detained were formally charged and imprisoned, but judging by the fact that all eight taken along with Karakaş were, according to his court papers, arrested, that number is not likely to be low.

Karakaş was born in Diyarbakır in 1960. He finished primary school and then started working as an assistant to truck drivers at the age of 12. In 1989 he was forced to migrate to Istanbul like many other Kurds at the time, together with his wife Müzeyyen and first-born, Uğur (Azad). The couple’s other children, Umut and Ufuk, were born in the city. “He is a patriot, and he was always a political person,” remembers Uğur Karakaş. Although he was in the logistics trade until his company went bankrupt following the 2000 financial crisis in Turkey, Karakaş was always engaged in politics and he wrote columns for the pro-Kurdish Özgür Gündem and socialist Evrensel.

Life in Istanbul and Halkın Nabzı

Despite being in commerce after he moved to Istanbul, he found the time to complete secondary and high school through distance learning. According to his interrogation log, he is currently in his second year obtaining a sociology degree from Turkey’s distance learning university Açıköğretim. He also made sure that his children had a better chance at life: one is a lawyer and the one is a doctor. His youngest is attending an undergraduate computer engineering programme.

“Even before he was a journalist, he was always interested in the country’s problems,” says Ahmet Tulgar, a veteran Turkish journalist who has been publishing Halkın Nabzı with Karakaş for more than six years. Their paths had crossed at panels and meetings before they formally started working together. When Karakaş was out of the logistics business and Tulgar left his day job at the BirGün newspaper in the second half of 2000s, the two men started an advertising company in İstanbul’s Maltepe district — which is where Halkın Nabzı is published today.

“He is a family man. He would come to work after his morning walk and go home straight in the evening. In 2013 we decided to publish a local newspaper together, but it wouldn’t be one of those local publications which only report on where the mayor had dinner or on the recent affairs of the powerful people in the community,” Tulgar says.

And as such, Halkın Nabzı came to life. Distributed on the Anatolian side of Istanbul and funded by local businesses and municipalities, the weekly newspaper has a circulation of 10,000 copies. Given the vision and background of its founders, Halkın Nabzı’s emphasis on quality journalism is not a surprise: the paper values its independence above all else. It brings local stories to the forefront while maintaining its relevance to the national conversation. According to Tulgar, Halkın Nabzı’s editorial policy is defined by a “peace journalism that encompasses all segments of society and that uses a style which can be comprehended by all societal segments”. “İshak’s tweets are not reflective of our editorial policy of course,” he is quick to add.

A family man

“Let alone putting such a man in jail, they should reward him for having found the formula for peace in this country,” says Tulgar, who adds that the participants of Karakaş’s morning (Tulgar, who is happy to sleep in in the morning, isn’t one of them), come from very diverse and opposing political backgrounds.

“He is a man of peace. I guess you can say that about anyone, but he wanted to be a soldier of peace. Unfortunately, they have put such a man in jail,” Tulgar says. He also jokingly complains that he and Uğur have had to eat fast food for the past few weeks. “He always fixed lunch for us in the office. Sometimes the people in our building would come ask if they could have some of what he has cook if they couldn’t find something good to order on a particular day.”

For Tulgar,  Karakaş’s absence is much more than missing a hearty and healthy lunch. When the two started the newspaper, they were mostly on their own for the first couple of years. “We have worked together for so long, of course it is hard,” he says, slightly bitter at his friend for tweeting “irresponsibly”.

What Tulgar doesn’t say is how he and his now-imprisoned friend have shared the everyday stress of launching a publication and how they had to brave the anxiety of trying to produce good journalism in one of the most dangerous countries for the profession. The two men have been in battle together, and now one is in prison.

Even if Karakaş is convicted, he would be released because although propaganda is punishable by a two-year sentence, such sentences are usually suspended under Turkey’s criminal procedures, according to Uğur Karakaş.  

“He has a huge family. He is a grandfather and another grandchild is on the way. Uğur will get married this summer,” Tulgar added.

In Turkey’s wider reality, where 153 journalists are in prison and six were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole only two weeks ago, knowing that Karakaş may be released at his first trial is comforting.

Tulgar slows down, speaking softly: “Cumhuriyet’s Murat Sabuncu, who is a gem of a man, Ahmet Şık, who is such a great journalist who has never chased personal interest or fame, and Akın Atalay are in prison. Osman Kavala is also in prison. There are so many great people in prison, it is embarrassing to complain ‘oh my friend has been in prison for one-and-a-half months.’ ”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”pagination” items_per_page=”2″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1520255755875-dae306ff-b8c0-4″ taxonomies=”8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Mapping Media Freedom” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-times-circle” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

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