On March 6, 2019, the İstanbul 37th Heavy Penal Court issued a warrant against Gizem Sayın, a research assistant at the Law School of İstanbul Kadir Has University, while she was abroad conducting academic research; she was arrested on her return to Turkey on three months later. The criminal action against Sayin is in apparent retaliation for her endorsement of a petition criticizing state and military actions in predominantly Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey.
The petition, organized by a group known as “Academics for Peace,” was issued in January 2016 and initially signed by 1,128 scholars from 89 Turkish universities, as well as more than 300 scholars from outside the country. The petition demanded an end to fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, accused the government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians, and called on the government to allow independent observers into the region, end curfews, and renew peace efforts.
Following the petition’s publication, state and higher education authorities in Turkey began launching criminal and administrative investigations against the signatories. Since that time, a growing number of signatories have reportedly faced criminal investigations and prosecutions, as well as professional retaliation for endorsing the petition.
Sayin was in Switzerland on a nine-month, university-approved research trip, when the court issued the warrant for her arrest. She was arrested on June 11 at Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport, upon her return to Turkey, and was released following an appearance at the Istanbul Courthouse shortly thereafter.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution and detention of a scholar in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association, 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. Where they are a part of a widespread pattern, such incidents have a profoundly chilling effect on academic freedom, undermine democratic society generally, and may represent a grave threat to higher education on a national scale. State authorities have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, as well as due process and fair trial.