On September 25, 2018, a Turkish court convicted and sentenced former rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University (COMU) Dr. Sedat Laçiner to nine years, four months and fifteen days’ imprisonment on a charge of membership to a terrorist organization. The charge is based on Dr. Laçiner’s alleged connections to Fethullah Gülen, who authorities accuse of organizing a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
State authorities have alleged that members of a movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen were 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 mass dismissals of public employees, restrictions on travel, and other arrests.
Dr. Laçiner is a prominent scholar of international relations and security. He was appointed rector of COMU in 2011 and was previously an advisor to the president of Turkey’s Higher Education Council (YÖK). Following the coup attempt, on July 23, 2016, authorities arrested Dr. Laçiner and seven other COMU academics. Authorities have held Dr. Laçiner in pre-trial detention since his arrest.
On September 25, 2018, a court convicted Dr. Laçiner of membership to a terrorist organization and sentenced him to nine years, four months and fifteen days in prison. A public prosecutor had reportedly sought a sentence of life imprisonment. According to a letter by Dr. Laçiner published online in March 2018, Turkish authorities declined to file evidence supporting Dr. Laçiner’s innocence, including social media posts denouncing the coup attempt and a book critical of Gülen that police found in his office. The evidentiary basis of his conviction and sentencing is unclear. Dr. Laçiner’s lawyer has called for his acquittal and release; however, the court declined this request.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary prosecution and imprisonment of a scholar as a part of sweeping actions taken by the state against members of 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 opinion and expression, 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.