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: October 19, 2017

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Afyon Kocatepe University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On October 19, 2017, a Turkish court sentenced Mehmet Ünlü, a former professor of medicine at Afyon Kocatepe University, to 12 years in prison, based on alleged connections with Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who authorities claim was responsible for 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. Authorities allege that members of a movement led by Mr. Gülen are 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. These actions have included a series of emergency decrees ordering the dismissal of thousands of academic and administrative personnel from Turkey’s universities. Professor Ünlü was ordered for dismissal in one such decree issued on September 1, 2016 (see report).

Following his dismissal, Professor Ünlü was reportedly taken into custody by Turkish authorities. On October 19, 2017, a Turkish court convicted and sentenced Professor Ünlü to 12 years imprisonment on a charge of “membership to a terrorist organization.” The evidentiary basis for the conviction reportedly includes his alleged attendance at Gülenist-related religious gatherings, his involvement in personnel hirings at the university, and an account he held at Bank Asya, which was taken over by the government following the coup attempt. Professor Ünlü’s wife was also sentenced to four years and two months imprisonment.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary conviction and sentencing of a scholar. 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, to which Turkey is a party. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.