No right to education for 70,000 “communist” students

Times are hard for Turkish students and academics: the introduction of repressive legislation, combined with hostile rhetoric and threats from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), reveal what one student described as an attempt to drive out all dissent from universities and high schools.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s harsh words directed at students of Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University who protested against celebrations on campus of Turkey’s military success in Afrin, northwest Syria, illustrate one facet of the government’s repression of academia.

The president announced that the students were “communists” and “terrorists,” and should not be allowed the right to an education at Turkish universities. Police dutifully detained more than 20 students, several of whom said they had been beaten in custody.

This follows a pattern seen in January 2016, when more than 2,000 academics signed a petition demanding the Turkish Armed Forces cease activities endangering civilian lives during the conflict with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in Turkey’s southeast. Erdoğan called the signatories “terrorist lovers”; 148 are now on trial, with three sentenced in February.

Jail sentences, or the long pre-trial detentions that account for almost a third of the country’s prisoners, are by no means the end of the students’ problems. Thanks to a decree issued under the state of emergency ongoing in Turkey since the failed July 2016 coup, time spent behind bars can severely inhibit, or permanently derail a student’s education, as Emrah Bakır, a journalism student at Ankara University, discovered.

“They robbed me of my most basic right – the right to an education,” said Bakır, who spent nine months in prison after he was arrested for attending a press conference that criticised government policies on the Ankara University campus in March last year.

All citizens are guaranteed the right to an education by Article 42 of the Turkish constitution. However, state of emergency decree 667, implemented in July 2016, has effectively deprived Turks accused of crimes related to “(terrorist) organisations” of that right by preventing them from sitting exams.

That Bakır’s attendance of a student press conference qualified him for this punishment illustrates the government’s loose definition of such crimes. The nine months in prison, and the exams he missed as a result, cost Bakır two years. His graduation date in 2019 was postponed to 2021.

With almost 70,000 – almost a third – of Turkish prisoners enrolled in high school equivalent or distance learning programmes, the number of Turks affected by the decree is potentially massive.

Bakır was released pending trial in December 2017, only to face further difficulties: his scholarship had been cut due to his arrest. From then on the journalism student would need to work to support his studies.

Even so, Bakır could be counted as one of the lucky ones. Some imprisoned students have been expelled on the grounds that they had not attended compulsory courses. The fact that these students were detained awaiting trial was not accepted as a sufficient excuse.

“They didn’t do this to us by chance,” said Bakır of the measures taken against him. “Our right to an education has been blocked because we were not able to study ... We have been deprived of our fundamental rights throughout the period of our imprisonment.”

This, said Bakır, was part of the government’s efforts to quash all dissent. “The institutions that criticise the government most are universities,” he said. “But they have already dismissed a great many dissenting academics.”

Looming over such dissenting voices in public universities are government-appointed rectors, another measure introduced by state of emergency decree in October, 2016.

Their presence to root out dissenting voices from the top is complemented by what one lawyer told Ahval were instances of fabricated evidence against students.

Prosecutors are arriving at court with testimony that should never have been accepted as evidence, said Gulan Çağın Kaleli, who has been closely following the cases of arrested students.

Kaleli has challenged this testimony where possible, securing the release of some of the student defendants. However, far from setting a precedent against further investigations based on fabricated evidence, Kaleli reports a rise in even more flagrantly false evidence.

“In one case information was recorded on a number of students studying in different campuses around the city, all in the same hour,” she said. “In this file, the informant is reckless enough to include a note telling the police to notify him when they arrest the suspects.”

The allegations against students can include accusations that they are preparing to carry out bomb attacks, said Kaleli – all based on the word of highly suspect informants. And this puts students, as Bakır discovered, in line for up to a year in jail awaiting trial.

Bakır said all this was designed to reshape universities as places with no room for dissenting opinions. His own case, like many others at Boğaziçi and other universities around Turkey, show that despite all the risks students still have the courage to resist.