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November 10, 2011

Arrests of Academics in Turkey Cause Concerns

by Dorian Jones

Concerns are growing over academic freedom in Turkey following the arrest of a well-known university professor under the country's anti-terror laws.  The government argues that it is facing a growing threat from the PKK rebel group, which is fighting for greater Kurdish rights.

Academics at Istanbul's elite Bosphorus University protested against the arrest of fellow Professor Busra Ersanli, under the country's anti terror laws.  

Ersanli, was acting as an advisor to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the country’s main legal Kurdish party, on constitutional reform.

Now, she is languishing in a maximum security prison awaiting trial on charges of supporting the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.  If convicted she faces up to 20 years in jail.

Her detention is part of a new worrying trend claims Professor Ayfer Bartu of Bosphorus University. He says the crackdown has already taken its toll on academic freedom,

"There is a lot of self censorship that is going at the universities," said Bartu. "A graduate university from our department detained , and couple of students from other departments were also detained. Some people are worried now because of the research they are doing, because it now becoming so easy to mark people.They are creating this reality that anyone who even talks about the Kurdish issue, is actually a supporter of the PKK, it didn't use to be like that."

Prosecutors claim that the detentions are a necessary part of their battle against what they portray as a terrorist conspiracy hatched by the Democratic Society Congress, or KCK. The government asserts the group acts as the urban wing of the PKK.

Human rights groups say over 5,000 people have been detained and arrested, including Kurdish mayors, trade unionists, human rights workers as well as academics and students as part of the KCK investigation.

Critics say the investigation has little do with fighting terrorism.

Richard Howitt member of the European Parliament’s committee on Turkey has been following many of the cases.

"...7,500 pages on the indictment list, but not one mention of any weapon or any violence seems to suggest it's a series of political trials against Kurdish activists, that what they say maybe true," said Howitt.

The arrest of a leading academic has added to the concerns over the investigation. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently dismissed the growing criticism and strongly defended the latest arrests.

“What is the KCK? Who is behind it? They are defending the KCK without seriously researching these things, he said. "Those arrested speak of revolution. Revolutions are made with guns. The prosecutors conducted a wiretap and caught this. Everything will come to light once the indictment is drawn up."

But the sweeping anti terror laws are also being used against student protesters. Last year, three students who held a up a banner calling for free university education during a rally for the prime minister, were accused of being members of a far left terrorist group and held in a maximum security jail for 17 months until the charges were finally dropped.

At Istanbul's University campus, there is growing fear among politically active students. Police officers now freely roam this campus, as they do all others in the country. This comes after the government reinstated the right of the police to do so - something that had been originally introduced by the country's military rulers in the 1980's. This student, who asked not to be named, is worried.

"We are afraid of police forces on students, now I don't want to talk on mobile phones with my friends for the political subjects," said the student. "Because somebody can hear me. So all these developments make young people afraid."  

Observers say there is now increasing concern that the on-going anti-terrorism crackdown maybe more about silencing criticism than any war on terrorism.