Starting on July 7, 2018, authorities began detaining and issuing detention warrants for Middle East Technical University (METU) students, in apparent retaliation for their peaceful protest activities at a university graduation ceremony on July 6.
The detentions and warrants reportedly targeted METU students who participated in a graduation ceremony tradition of carrying political banners criticizing recent developments in the country. These included three students who held a banner with a cartoon featuring the faces of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other government officials on various animals. The cartoon was first published in satire magazine Penguen in 2005, under the title “Kingdom of Tayyips,” and led Erdoğan to bring a civil defamation suit against the magazine, which was ultimately rejected by the courts.
The day after the graduation ceremony, Turkish officials detained the three students who carried the cartoon banner, another student who allegedly transported it, and a print shop employee who allegedly printed it. An Ankara court ordered the release of the print shop employee; however, on July 11, authorities formally arrested the four students on a charge of “insulting the president.” The students remain in detention as of this report.
In addition to these four students, authorities temporarily detained Özgür Mehmet Gür, the Student Representatives Council Chair and a member of the University’s LGBTI+ Solidarity group, and issued detention warrants for another 12 students, in connection with the graduation activities.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention, arrest, or threatened arrest of students in apparent retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression – 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. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from interfering in students’ peaceful expressive activities. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom, freedom of expression, and democratic society generally.