On November 28, 2017, a Turkish court sentenced Erhan Hepoğlu, a student of econometrics at Dokuz Eylül University, to eight years imprisonment on a charge of “membership to a terrorist organization,” based on alleged connections to Fethullah Gülen, who authorities claim was responsible for a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Mr. Hepoğlu was ultimately released and placed under a travel ban.
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.
In October 2016, police from the Financial Crimes Division arrested Mr. Hepoğlu at his home in Izmir; during the raid they allegedly seized a memory stick which they claimed contained photos and videos of Mr. Gülen. Prosecutors later accused Mr. Hepoğlu of using ByLock, a smartphone application that authorities allege was used by organizers of the July 2016 coup attempt; they also accused him of holding an account at Bank Asya, which was closed shortly after the coup attempt due to alleged connections to Mr. Gülen’s followers. Mr. Hepoğlu denied the allegations, claiming to having never used ByLock or having any connections to Mr. Gülen’s movement.
On November 28, 2017, after a year in pretrial detention, a court convicted and sentenced Mr. Hepoğlu to five years and four months imprisonment on a charge of “membership to a terrorist organization.” The sentence was subsequently increased to eight years, in order to meet the requirements of Turkey’s anti-terror laws. Despite the sentence, the court ultimately released Mr. Hepoğlu and placed him under a travel ban.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the apparently arbitrary conviction and sentencing of a student. 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.