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: May 22, 2017

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Selçuk University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On May 22, 2017, police reportedly detained and later arrested Nuriye Gülmen, a professor of literature, along with Semih Özakça, a primary school teacher, apparently in connection with a hunger strike they had undertaken to protest their dismissals. The two had been dismissed as a result of an emergency decree on January 6, based on allegations that they were involved in a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

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 January 6, 2017, Turkish authorities issued emergency decree No. 679, ordering the dismissal of more than 8,300 public officials and employees, including Professor Gülmen and Mr. Özakça, based on allegations that they were involved in the coup attempt (see report). The decree further orders that those listed be banned from public service employment for life, and that their passports be invalidated indefinitely. The evidentiary basis for ordering Professor Gülmen, Mr. Özakça, and others dismissed has not been disclosed.

Soon after the decree was issued, Professor Gülmen and Mr. Özakça staged a sit-in in Ankara’s Kizilay Square to protest the emergency decrees and demand relief for academics, teachers, and other individuals who they claim have been wrongfully targeted. On March 9, the two educators took up a hunger strike, which quickly gained international attention.

On May 21, an Ankara public prosecutor reportedly issued detention warrants for Professor Gülmen and Mr. Özakça. At approximately 1:00 am the next day, police special forces raided the home of Professor Gülmen and Mr. Özakça and detained them. On May 23, they were taken to the Ankara courthouse, where they were reportedly questioned about the hunger strike and their social media activity. Later that day, the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of Professor Gülmen and Mr. Özakça on charges of “being member[s] of an armed terror organization.” As of this report, a trial has not yet been scheduled.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention and arrest of a scholar and teacher in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to 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 victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On July 24, 2017, two lawyers representing Professor Gülmen and Mr. Özakça were reportedly detained by security officials following a demonstration protesting their arrest. Professor Gülmen and Mr. Özakça reportedly continue to maintain their hunger strike.

UPDATE: On December 1, 2017, Professor Gülmen was convicted on charges of membership in a terrorist organization — namely, the DHKP-C, a Marxist-Leninist party outlawed in Turkey — and sentenced to six years and three months in jail. Professor Gülmen denies any connection to the DHKP-C. The court ordered her release pending appeal.  Mr. Özakça was acquitted of the charges against him.