SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: March 15, 2016

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution | Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):Istanbul Bilgi University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On March 15, 2016, Chris Stephenson, a British scholar of computer science at Istanbul Bilgi University, was arrested on charges of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization” after he was allegedly found outside the Istanbul Police Department distributing Nowruz holiday invitations printed by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Professor Stephenson was at the Istanbul Police Department to show support for three academics detained on March 14 in relation to ongoing investigations into signatories to a petition calling on the Turkish government to end its crackdowns targeting Kurdish rebels in the southeastern part of the country.

Professor Stephenson, who is a signatory to the petition, was reportedly released on March 16 after questioning by a prosecutor. According to the scholar’s lawyer, the prosecutor will file a deportation request to the Istanbul Governor’s office. As of this report, Professor Stephenson had been escorted to the airport to leave Turkey.

The petition, signed by 1128 scholars from 89 Turkish universities, as well as more than 300 scholars from outside the country, demands an end to fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  It accuses the government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians, and calls on the government to allow independent observers into the region, end curfews, and renew peace efforts.

Following the publication of the petition on January 11, 2016, public authorities placed all of its 1128 Turkish signatories under investigation.  Since that time, many of the scholars who signed the petition have reportedly faced criminal, as well as professional retaliation.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention of and attempts to deport scholars in response to their nonviolent exercise of the rights to academic freedom, free expression and free association, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a party.  Where they are a part of a widespread pattern, such incidents have a profoundly chilling effect on academic freedom, undermine democratic society generally, and may represent a grave threat to higher education on a national scale.  State and university authorities have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association, as well as due process and fair trial.


On March 22, 2016, Professor Stephenson reportedly returned to Turkey and has since resumed lectures at Bilgi University. Professor Stephenson’s return followed the announcement by Turkish immigration authorities four days earlier that he was not prohibited from entering Turkey.

On April 29, 2016, prosecutors reportedly indicted Professor Stephenson, charging him with “conducting terrorist propaganda.” The indictment alleges that Nowruz holiday invitations, which Professor Stephenson was carrying at the time of his March 14 arrest, make reference to Kurdish autonomy, bear the flags of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), and depict people lighting fires and building barricades on the streets. According to the indictment, the purpose of these invitations is “to support the terrorist organization by legitimizing illegal activities…” An Istanbul court will reportedly review the case on May 2. If convicted, Professor Stephenson could face up to five years in prison.

On June 23, 2016, Professor Stephenson reportedly attended a first hearing at Istanbul’s Çağlayan Courthouse, during which he was acquitted of charges of “conducting terrorist propaganda.” Staff from Bilgi University reportedly represented Professor Stephenson at the hearing.

This is an update to an earlier report.  To view, please click here.