Turkey has been in a slow descent into authoritarianism since the failed July 2016 coup attempt. Using the attempted coup as a pretext, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the opportunity to clamp down on dissidents of all strains, including leftists, social democrats, trade unionists, academics, Kurdish politicians, LGBTQ persons, and women.
Declaring a state of emergency right after the coup attempt and reinstituting it several times since then, Erdoğan has concentrated immense power, eroded the rule of law, intervened in international crises, and promoted unsustainable and environmentally destructive growth.
In January 2015, a group of more than 1,100 university professors known as Academics for Peace signed a petition entitled, “We Will Not Be A Party To This Crime.” The list of signatories eventually grew to over 2,200. The academics demanded a peaceful resolution of the decades-long Kurdish conflict and called for the Turkish state to “lift the curfew, punish those who are responsible for human rights violations, and compensate those citizens who have experienced material and psychological damage” in the Kurdish region, where there has been a brutal crackdown involving massive killings, curfews and displacement of about half a million people. The petitioners also demanded that impartial international observers monitor the situation in Kurdish towns and cities destroyed by security forces.
The authoritarian regime in Turkey accused Academics for Peace of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” and accused the signatories of being “traitors.” Within the country, four signatories were imprisoned for several months, some were denied renewal of their work contracts, some were forced to resign, and some were dismissed by their university administrations.
These latest acts ramped up earlier repressions against the academics. Over 5,000 Turkish professors have been fired from their university jobs and subjected to multiple waves of criminal and administrative investigations, detentions, dismissals, passport revocations and travel bans, denial of pension rights, and exclusion from the labour market through blacklisting of national insurance numbers.
Under the state of emergency, some 150,000 people have been fired from their jobs and more than 50,000 have been arrested. The state has used its emergency powers to replace more than 80 elected Kurdish mayors with political appointees.
Following Erdoğan’s campaign of repression, a number of Turkish academics have sought refuge all over the world, especially in Europe and North America. But fleeing to other countries does not ensure their security. Turkish prosecutors are preparing to open criminal procedures against nearly one hundred academics and intellectuals living in Germany.
Criminal trials of Academics for Peace were to begin in December but have been postponed to April 2018. These persecuted professors are being tried on an individual basis and, if convicted, may face seven and a half years in prison. The group is seeking support from those who share its outrage at these events as well as relief from a well-founded fear of prosecution. In a democratic state, drawing international attention to the human rights violations of a vulnerable segment of its population should not result in sanctions. That such actions could now mean a lengthy jail sentence is the harshest demonstration of the erosion of democracy in Turkey. It is a real risk that the petitioners and their allies are taking simply by expressing their support for the nation’s besieged Kurds.
We in Canada are learning how fragile a right is freedom of speech, and how elastic its interpretation by diverging parties. But we are a long way from its deliberate, direct, and systematic assault of the kind in which democratically minded dissidents in Turkey are now swept up, and at great personal cost.
Cynthia Levine-Rasky is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University.
David Murakami Wood is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology with a cross-appointment to the Department of Geography.