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: December 13, 2016

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution | Travel Restrictions


Region & Country:Southeastern Asia | Malaysia

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On December 13, 2016, Malaysian authorities reportedly arrested Turkish scholar İsmet Özçelik after his passport was cancelled by Turkish authorities over alleged connections to a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

Following the July 15 coup attempt, Turkish authorities declared a national state of emergency, which has been extended multiple times, and remains in effect as of this report. Authorities have alleged that members of a movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen were behind the coup attempt, and have taken a range of actions against members of the higher education community (among others) which they claim are intended to identify those parties involved, and/or to eliminate the Gülen movement’s influence within Turkish institutions.

According to his lawyers, Professor Özçelik was a member of Turkey’s Mevlana University’s board of directors until the university was closed by the Turkish authorities on July 23, 2016, over alleged connections to the Gülen movement (see here). His lawyers state that he has not been involved in any political movements.

In the months following the university’s closure, Professor Özçelik travelled to Malaysia to visit his son, who teaches at the TIME International School in Kuala Lumpur. On the evening of December 13, men in plainclothes reportedly entered the location where Professor Özçelik’s was staying, claiming that they were officers from the Immigration Department, and that the Turkish Embassy had cancelled his passport and requested that he be extradited. When Professor Özçelik, his sons, and his son’s colleagues resisted, they were arrested by the Malay police on charges of obstructing civil servants in carrying out their duty. His son and his colleagues were reportedly released from custody; however, Professor Özçelik, whose visa was cancelled the next day, reportedly remains detained as of this report.

Professor Özçelik’s family has reported that he was not offered a translator during his arrest, and that he was denied medication for his heart condition and diabetes. As of this report, a trial date has not been set, but he is scheduled to attend a pre-trial hearing on February 20, 2017.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and attempted extradition of a scholar, apparently based on suspicion of association with a particular organization. While state authorities have a right to maintain order and respond to legitimate security concerns, such actions must comply with states’ human rights obligations, including those relating to freedom of association, due process, and academic freedom, which are protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.