Association Alleges Academic Freedom Violations in Turkey

December 13, 2012

The Middle East Studies Association raised serious concerns about alleged violations of academic freedom in Turkey -- including the detention of students and scholars on the basis of their research into Kurdish issues -- in three letters sent to the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Wednesday.

Collectively, the incidents described in the letters seem to point to “a systematic policy of denying the right to do research and writing and publishing on the subject of Kurdish rights,” said Asli Bâli, an assistant professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles who conducted research on the legal proceedings against Turkish students and scholars on behalf of MESA and its Committee on Academic Freedom. “In a way, that is related to a broader campaign to prevent civil society organizing and civil and political action on the part of Kurdish communities and pro-Kurdish communities and scholars in general, whether they be Turkish or foreign," Bâli said. She added that while Kurdish scholarship has been especially targeted, leftist scholarship in general – on issues such as the environment, gender and race – has come under increased scrutiny in Turkey.

One letter expresses concerns about seven students at Turkish universities – representative of hundreds, Bâli said – who have been detained and accused of membership in the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK) by virtue of their academic work. According to the letter, undergraduate and graduate students alike have been accused of membership in the KCK – a prohibited organization in Turkey -- on the basis of such evidence as attending or lecturing at an academic forum on Kurdish rights and civil society, and traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan for field research.

A second letter details dismay regarding the ongoing trials of Pinar Selek, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Strasbourg, in France, who has, since her arrest in 1998, been thrice acquitted of the charge of membership in the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization. Three times those acquittals have been reversed, forcing a retrial. The letter states that evidence linking Selek to a bombing at Istanbul Spice Market is "extremely weak" – a claim echoed by Human Rights Watch, which notes that experts think a gas leak was the source of the explosion – and asserts that the only evidence connecting Selek to the PKK is her own academic research on the group.

The final letter details concerns about a broad array of alleged academic freedom violations on the part of government-appointed university administrators, including the alleged censorship of an article on racism and the cancellation of two academic conferences, on gender equality and prisons, reportedly due to the participation of members of the pro-Kurdish (and legal) Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).Taken together with the detentions, "actions such as the intervention of government-appointed university administrators to prevent academic publications or events concerning issues deemed sensitive by the government make it appear that the Turkish government has undertaken a campaign to inhibit the dissemination of knowledge, the conduct of academic research and even the right to an education where any of these protected activities overlap with criticism of the government or a focus on issues deemed politically sensitive, such as Kurdish rights," the letter states.

The Turkish embassy in Washington did not offer a response Wednesday afternoon or evening.

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