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 28, 2017

Attack Types: Prosecution

Institution(s):Çukurova University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On April 28, 2017, Turkish authorities announced initiated legal proceedings against Günal Kurşun, a legal scholar and human rights defender, who had been ordered dismissed by an October 29, 2016, government decree, based on allegations that he was involved in a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Authorities have charged him with “being a member of a terrorist organization” and “making propaganda,” apparently in connection with his writings and human rights work.

Following the coup attempt, Turkish authorities declared a national state of emergency, which has been extended repeatedly, and remains in effect as of this report. Authorities allege that members of a movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen are behind the coup attempt, and have accordingly 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. 

On October 29, 2016, Turkish authorities issued emergency decree No. 675, ordering the dismissal of 1,267 academic personnel, including Professor Kurşun, based on allegations that they were involved in the coup attempt (see report). The decree further provided that Professor Kurşun and the other personnel listed were banned from public service for life and that their passports were to be invalidated indefinitely.

In addition to his academic work, Professor Kurşun co-founded Amnesty International Turkey and the Human Rights Agenda Association (HRAA), for which he served as president from 2012-2016. He has also written frequently in both Turkish and English-language news outlets on human rights and criminal law in Turkey.

On April 28, 2017, Professor Kurşun reportedly received a text message informing him that a criminal case had been filed against him, apparently based on accusations that he was a member of and created propaganda for Fethullah Gülen’s movement. According to the indictment, the evidentiary basis for the charges includes articles he wrote for Today’s Zaman, a newspaper that was shut down by Turkish authorities over alleged links to Fethullah Gülen, as well as HRAA press releases that were allegedly critical of the Turkish government. If convicted, Professor Kurşun could face up to 16 years in prison.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of 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. 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, freedom of 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.