Turkey Detains Academics Who Signed Petition Defending Kurds

Updated: May 3, 2019

Turkish authorities detained 14 scholars on Friday, accusing them of spreading “terrorism propaganda” and of insulting the state after they signed a petition denouncing the military’s campaign against Kurdish militants in Southeast Turkey.

Twelve scholars from Kocaeli University in northwestern Turkey were detained in early-morning raids on their homes, the semiofficial news agency Anadolu reported. Arrest warrants were issued for nine others from the university, and by midafternoon, two of them had been detained.

All 21 scholars were among the more than 1,000 academics from 90 Turkish universities who signed the public statement, “We Won’t Be a Party to This Crime,” that urged the government in Ankara, Turkey's capital, to end the “deliberate massacre” of Kurds caught in clashes between security forces and militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The petition angered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who denounced the group—and foreign scholars who signed the document including the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky—in a televised speech on Tuesday. Erdogan accused the signatories of “treason” and of forming a “fifth column” of foreign powers trying to undermine Turkey’s national security.

“Unfortunately, these so-called academics claim that the state is carrying out a massacre,” Erdogan said in his speech, which came shortly after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 10 German tourists in the historic heart of Istanbul. “Hey, you so-called intellectuals: You are dark people. You are not intellectuals.”

Erdogan called on Chomsky and other scholars to visit southeastern Turkey to get a “true picture” of the events taking place there.

“They should see with their eyes whether the problem is a violation by the state or the hijacking of our citizens’ rights and freedoms by the terrorist organization,” he said, referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

On Thursday, the government formally began an investigation of the scholars. If convicted, the academics could face one to five years in jail.

The detentions have deepened concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership, and analysts say that the latest crackdown on academics is intended to muzzle debate and to curb academic freedoms.