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Turkish Academic Detentions Spark Protests, Rights Concerns

Academics staged protests Wednesday over an Istanbul’s court decision to detain three of their colleagues pending trial on “terrorist propaganda.” The protesters were among more than 1,000 academics who signed a petition calling for an end to a military crackdown in Turkey’s Kurdish region and a resumption of peace talks with PKK rebels.

"For peace, for justice" was the chant from hundreds of students from Istanbul’s Bosphorus University as they protested the pre-trial detentions of three academics.

Esra Mungan, one of those detained, helped organize a petition calling for an end to military operations against the Kurdish rebel group the PKK and the resumption of peace talks.

Briton Christopher Stephenson, was taken into custody Tuesday while attending a vigil in support of those being tried. Prosecutors say he was carrying political material belonging to the main, legal pro-Kurdish Party, the HDP, and that it was terrorist propaganda. After one night in detention, he was expelled from the country Wednesday.

"I’ve been released, but I face deportation, although I have committed no crime. The pieces of papers I was carrying were completely legal, produced by the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament, the People’s Democratic Party. My family is Turkish; my wife is Turkish; my daughter is Turkish. I have worked here legally for 25 years; I worked at the same university for 17 years. To deport me is out of all proportion," said Stephenson.

Stephenson also signed the controversial petition. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch Wednesday said there is a systematic campaign against the 1,000 academics who signed it.

The rights group says 57 academics have already been dismissed or suspended from their posts. All are under investigation by Istanbul's anti-terrorist prosecutor. The organization's senior Turkey researcher, Emma Sinclair Webb, says the crackdown is part of a wider strategy by the Turkish president.

"This crackdown has extended beyond the media into other groups such as academics, universities. There is enormous pressure on site, where there could be political opposition or criticism or dissent," said Sinclair Webb.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded the prosecution of the academics, calling them terrorists. Since Sunday’s suicide bombing which killed 34 people in Ankara and was blamed on the PKK, the president urged an intensification of what he calls his war on terrorism. On Wednesday, he repeated his call for action.

Erdogan said that if the state doesn’t strike its fist in a velvet glove on the heads of terrorists, they will continue hurting people each day. He said this issue has no relation to human rights, freedom of thought, or freedom of press and democracy.

Erdogan called on lawmakers to lift the parliamentary immunity of deputies of the pro-Kurdish HDP.