On January 31, 2020, the İstanbul 32nd Heavy Penal Court sentenced twenty students from Boğaziçi University to ten months imprisonment and fined seven more students, on charges of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” in retaliation for their protest against Turkish military actions in northern Syria.
On March 18, 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkish armed forces and the Free Syrian Army had taken control of the center of Afrin, a Kurdish-majority city in Syria. On March 19, a group of students held a demonstration on Boğaziçi University’s campus where they opened a stand distributing Turkish delight to show support for the Turkish army, commemorating the death of 46 soldiers who had died during the military offensive. A group of students organized a counter protest, holding a banner that read “invasion, massacre cannot be marked with Turkish delight.” The two opposing student groups reportedly confronted one another, and students from the counter protest reportedly damaged the stand.
Starting on March 22, police conducted a series of raids on student dormitories and houses, arresting dozens of students for their alleged connection to the counter protest, on charges of “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” (see report). On March 24, during a speech, Erdoğan labeled the students as “terrorists,” announced an investigation into the students, and said his government would not give “these terrorist youth the right to study as these universities.” On June 6, 2018, following the first hearing, all students in jail pending trial were released, but placed under a travel ban. On October 3, 2018, at a second hearing in court, the travel bans were lifted.
On January 31, 2020, thirty students stood trial for their alleged involvement in the March 2018 counter protest. The students sentenced to ten months imprisonment are İsmail Gürler, Sevde Öztürk, Berke Aydoğan, Enes Karakaş, Mete Ulutaş, Ekim Devrim Çapartaş, Esen Deniz Üstündağ, Oğuzcan Ünlü, Ozan Yaman, İdil Ügüt, Yusuf Noyan Öztürk, Muhammet Bilgin, Zülküf İbrahim Erkok, Elif Nur Aybaş, Mustafa Ada Kök, Kübra Sağır, Hamza Dinçer, Agah Suat Atay, Emir Eray Karabıyık, and Ali İmran Şirin. The court deferred the announcement of the verdict, a procedural mechanism through which individuals convicted of crimes can avoid prison time so long as they are not subsequently convicted of separate offenses.
Seven more students who were sentenced to ten months imprisonment refused to accept the deferred announcement of the verdict. In response, the court withdrew their prison sentences and imposed a monetary fine of 6,000 Turkish Lira (about US$1,000). Those students are Şükran Yaren Tuncer, Bektaş Deneri, Damla Uyar, Tevger Uzay Tulay, Deniz Yılmaz, Denizhan Eren, and İrem Gerkuş.
The court acquitted three other students after trial.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution of students in retaliation for the nonviolent 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. 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.