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Turkey Detains Academics Who Signed Petition Defending Kurds

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

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.

“The campaign against academics this week certainly targets a new group and has very serious consequences for academic freedom in Turkey, as well as free speech,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There are concerns for the physical safety of some academics in provincial universities after being targeted in such a way.”

The petition has even drawn criticism from a notorious organized-crime boss, Sedat Peker, who is known for his nationalist viewpoints. “We will spill your blood, and we will take shower with your blood,” he said in a statement on his website.

Several scholars, reached by telephone on Friday, declined to comment on the detentions for fear of reprisal.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a political scientist and former university professor, also lashed out at the scholars who signed the petition.

“Being an intellectual and defending democracy is first of all possible by defending democratic methods,” Mr. Davutoglu said. “Why are you aligning behind this terrorist organization?”

The United States ambassador to Turkey, John R. Bass, criticized the arrests, saying they would have a “chilling effect on legitimate political discourse” about the violence in southeastern Turkey.

“In democratic societies, it is imperative that citizens have the opportunity to express their views, even controversial or unpopular ones,” Bass said in a statement on Twitter. “Expressions of concern about violence do not equal support for terrorism. Criticism of government does not equal treason.”

Violence has surged in Turkey’s volatile southeast since the renewal of a decades-old conflict between Kurdish militants and the Turkish state, a conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

The Turkish military started a major counterinsurgency campaign last month, imposing round-the-clock curfews in Kurdish areas to drive militants out of their strongholds. Rights groups say that nearly 200 civilians have been killed in the violence.


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