On January 30, 2021, five students were arrested in connection with an art exhibition on the campus of Bogaziči University.
The exhibition included a poster displaying the Kaaba, a sacred Muslim shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, alongside LGBTQ+ pride flags, a mythical half-woman, half-snake figure found in Middle Eastern folklore, and an explanatory text challenging traditional gender roles. An Islamic religious group on campus denounced the poster on social media, leading to more widespread social media criticism, including a promise to take legal action against the students by Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs.
Following the outcry about the poster, police searched the offices of the university’s fine arts and LGBTI+ student clubs, and announced in a statement that they had found books on an outlawed Kurdish group and rainbow LGBTQ+ flags. Police arrested five students on charges of “incitement to hatred” and “insulting religious values.” Following the arrests, interior Minister Suleyman Soylu tweeted that “LGBT perverts” had been detained in connection with the exhibition.
As of February 25, 2021, one student has reportedly been released, two have been placed under house arrest, and two remain in custody.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary arrest and detention of students in connection with peaceful student expression — conduct that is 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. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting or retaliating against such conduct. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, arrests intended to punish on-campus expressive activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.
UPDATE: On February 26, 2021, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office completed its investigation concerning the exhibition and recommended that a total of seven students, an increase from the original five students arrested, be sentenced to one to three years in prison on the charge of “publicly provoking the public to hatred and hostility.” The report further argues that the students’ actions led to an “open and imminent danger to public security.” The Prosecutor’s office alleged that the two students who remain under arrest hung the picture.