On November 8, 2021, Turkish police beat and arrested 11 students protesting Turkey’s Council on Higher Education (YÖK) on Ankara University’s Cebeci Campus.
YÖK was established by Turkey’s then military government in 1981 to oversee and manage higher education. Since then, university students and faculty have criticized YÖK for being a political entity that threatens institutional autonomy and academic freedom. A 2020 report on academic freedom in Turkey submitted to the United Nations found that “[l]imitations are imposed automatically on academic freedoms and autonomy owing to the undemocratic and non-autonomous operations of the [YÖK].
On November 8, university students on campuses in Ankara and Istanbul participated in protests marking YÖK’s 40th anniversary. During one such protest held at Istanbul University in Beyazit, a student protester named Egecan Özgür delivered a statement calling YÖK a “symbol of bullying, violence, torture and oppression towards students” (translated from Turkish). The statement also said that YÖK was a constant presence in students’ lives, manifesting in restrictions, politicized curriculum, sexist academics, and surveillance.
According to Toplumsal, Turkish police established a presence on Ankara University’s Cebeci Campus hours before the scheduled protest. When students attempted to gather on campus to protest and read their statement, the police surrounded them and prevented them from delivering the statement. The police beat and detained 11 students attempting to participate in the protest. Police also reportedly prevented journalists from entering the area to document the events. According to an article published by BirGün the following day, three of the students had been released; it is unclear if the other eight students have been released and if any of the students are facing charges.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the arbitrary detention of and use of violence against students peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly – 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 expressive activities and assemblies as long as they are peaceful and responsible. In addition to harm to the immediate victims, the use of arbitrary detention of and violence against students in response to peaceful student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.