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: April 06, 2017

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Istanbul Bilgi University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On April 6, 2017, it was announced that Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK) had cancelled the work permit of Chris Stephenson, a British scholar of computer science at Istanbul Bilgi University (IBU), apparently in connection with his endorsement of a January 2016 petition calling on the Turkish government to end its crackdowns targeting Kurdish rebels in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the publication of the petition (known as the “Peace Petition”) in January 2016, Turkish state and higher education authorities began taking sweeping actions against its signatories. All 1,128 signatories were immediately placed under investigation, with many later suffering professional retaliation, detentions, arrests, prosecutions, travel restrictions, and other threats in connection with the Peace Petition. 

Professor Stephenson has been based in Turkey for 25 years and has spent the past 18 years working at IBU. In March 2016, while demonstrating outside a prison where his colleagues were being held in connection with the Peace Petition, Professor Stephenson was arrested and deported,  based on allegations he was carrying Nowruz holiday invitations printed by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) (see report). He received permission from Turkish authorities to return to the country days later, but was indicted shortly after his return on charges of “conducting terrorist propaganda.” He was ultimately acquitted in June 2016.

In an April 6, 2017, Twitter post, Professor Stephenson announced that YÖK had cancelled his work permit without providing any justification. Two other foreign academics from Boğaziçi University who had endorsed the Peace Petition similarly had their work permits cancelled on February 22, 2017 (see report). As of this report, it is unknown whether IBU administrators have taken action to appeal or comply with YÖK’s decision.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about professional retaliation against a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association — conduct that is expressly protected by 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. 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 expression and association, academic freedom and due process. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.