On May 26, 2018, a Turkish court reportedly convicted and sentenced 16 İstanbul Technical University (ITU) academic personnel to varying prison sentences on charges of “being a member of an armed terrorist organization,” based on alleged connections to Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, 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, and remains in effect as of this report. 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.
A total of 35 academic personnel from ITU were prosecuted for allegedly being members of the Gulenist movement. On May 26, 16 of the personnel were convicted and issued sentences ranging from three years, one month and 15 days’ imprisonment to six years and three months’ imprisonment. The court will reportedly continue to prosecute the remaining 19 personnel in another case. The evidentiary bases for the convictions have reportedly included the alleged use of Bylock, a secure messaging application for mobile phones, and the alleged possession of US one-dollar bills, both of which have been frequently presented as evidence in similar prosecutions.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution and imprisonment of academic personnel as part of sweeping actions taken by the State against the higher education community. 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 victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.