On November 5, 2021, Hifzullah Kutum, a Kurdish research assistant at Firat University, was briefly detained by Turkish authorities and suspended from his position by the university’s administration in response to his social media activity.
On September 14, Kutum posted the following message (translated from Kurdish by Bianet) on his personal Facebook page along with a picture of former Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani: “Happy September Revolution to all Kurds. Long live Kurdistan.” The September Revolution is a Kurdish revolt launched on September 11, 1961 against the Iraqi government in an effort to establish an autonomous region for the Kurdish people. Headed by then leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mustafa Barzani, the conflict lasted for nearly a decade.
On November 3, the rector’s office at Firat University, where Kutum worked in the Finance Department as part of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences, issued him a warning in response to his tweet. Then, on November 5, the rector’s office suspended him from his role as a research assistant and announced that it had filed a criminal complaint against Kutum.
At the time he was detained on November 5, police were investigating Kutum for a terrorism-related charge. It is unclear whether the university’s complaint triggered the investigation. Kutum was taken into custody after posting on social media that there were unfamiliar people “waiting at his door” on campus and that he was “detecting a threatening situation.” Immediately before his detention, he had reported to Gazete Duvar that he was receiving comments on the post and direct messages that included death threats and insults. Following the arrest, an official in Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party shared an image on Twitter of a Turkish flag hanging on the door of Kutum’s office along with this message (translated from Turkish by Duvar): “Do not be scared! Here is Turkish Republic. Everyone is at the place they deserve.”
On November 10, the Elazığ 2nd Heavy Penal Court released Kutum after examining an appeal against his arrest; however, the case against him is set to continue in February 2022. His lawyer has stated that he will pursue legal action against Firat University for Kutum’s suspension.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the arbitrary detention, prosecution, and suspension of a scholar from his position for the nonviolent exercise his right to freedom of 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 taking actions to restrict or retaliate against such conduct, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. Further, higher education leaders and institutions should respect scholars’ right to freedom of expression by refraining from politically or ideologically motivated disciplinary actions, such as suspensions, and from filing criminal complaints in response to nonviolent, responsible expressive activity. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arbitrary prosecutions, detentions, and suspensions intended to restrict or otherwise deter the nonviolent expressive activity of scholars undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.