SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 11, 2019

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):University of Lyon-1

Region & Country:Western Asia | Turkey

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 11, 2019, Turkish authorities arrested University of Lyon-1 mathematics professor Ahmet Tuna Altınel for “propagandizing for a terrorist organization.” The charge is apparently based on Altınel’s alleged participation at a documentary screening in France.

Altınel, a professor at the University of Lyon-1 for more than twenty years, is a signatory to a petition organized by a group known as “Academics for Peace.” The petition, issued in January 2016 and initially signed by 1,128 scholars from 89 universities in Turkey, criticized state and military actions in predominantly Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey.

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. Altınel is currently facing charges of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” for his endorsement of the petition. He had last attended a court hearing on February 28, 2019, before returning to France. His next hearing is scheduled for July 16.

In April 2019, Altınel’s passport was confiscated by state authorities upon returning to Turkey for a family visit. On May 11, when Altınel went to a police station in Balikesir to inquire about his passport, authorities interrogated and then arrested him. Sources indicate that authorities charged him with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” apparently based on accusations that Altınel expressed support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by organizing and participating a screening of the documentary “Djizré, histoire d’un massacre” (Cizre, history of a massacre), held in Lyon on February 21.

The screening, which was organized by the group Amitiés Kurdes de Lyon et Rhône-Alpes (Kurdish Friends of Lyon and Rhône-Alpes), featured the presence of Faysal Sariyildiz, an exiled representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which receives significant support from Turkey’s Kurdish population and which opponents accuse of being aligned with the PKK. Associates of Altınel and the group that organized the screening have rebutted the authorities’ allegations, asserting that Altınel did not organize the screening, is not a supporter of the PKK, and had only offered to translate the remarks of representative Sariyildiz.

As of this report, Altınel is in pre-trial detention and a hearing has not been scheduled.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest of a scholar and the confiscation of his passport in apparent retaliation for the alleged nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, 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.

UPDATE: On July 30, 2019, the Balıkesir 2nd Heavy Penal Court ordered Altınel’s release without judicial control and exemption from forthcoming hearings. Altınel has since been released from prison.

UPDATE: On May 28, 2021, Altınel tweeted that an administrative court decision allowed him to receive his passport back after over two years. The decision by the court was appealed, however, Altınel maintained the right to use his passport.