Authorities in Turkey made dozens of new arrests in cities across the country Thursday, after downplaying international criticism — including U.S. condemnation — of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on university student rallies.
According to police, about 600 people have been detained since January 4 as protests spread in the capital, Ankara, and in Istanbul.
Erdogan has accused student demonstrators of being terrorists for protesting his appointment of a new rector at Bogazici University in Istanbul, one of the country’s top schools of higher education.
For over a month, students, faculty members and alumni of Bogazici University have protested Erdogan’s appointment of Turkish politician and academic Melih Bulu, demanding an election to choose a rector from the university’s own faculty.
Bulu holds a doctorate from Bogazici’s business management program but has never been a full-time academic at the university. Critics accused him of plagiarism in his dissertation and published articles and called for his resignation. Bulu has denied those accusations.
His involvement in politics also stirred controversy over his appointment, since he once ran for parliament as a candidate for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
He told reporters Wednesday he does not intend to resign from his university post. Still, his appointment has been viewed as an assault on academic freedom and sparked the protests.
Prior to Thursday’s arrests, Turkish police had detained more than 250 protesters in Istanbul and 69 students in Ankara this week, some of whom were released later. At least 51 protesters in Istanbul were referred to court on Wednesday and were released Thursday on bail.
On Tuesday, academics wearing their gowns gathered on the Bogazici University campus, their backs turned to the rector’s building in protest, demanding Bulu’s resignation and the release of detained students.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 79 of the detainees were linked to terror groups such as the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C).
Erdogan echoed Soylu’s statement in a video address to his ruling AKP on Wednesday, saying the protesters lack Turkey’s “national and spiritual values” and are members of terrorist groups.
“This country will not be run by terrorists,” he said. “We will do whatever is needed to prevent this. …We have not stood with terrorists, and we will not.”
Rights groups say the Turkish government has broadened the definition of anti-terrorism laws to suppress dissent.
“Turkish authorities have a long history of clamping down on free expression through abusive investigations, arbitrary detentions and unfounded prosecutions under vaguely defined anti-terrorism laws,” Deniz Yuksel, a Turkey advocacy specialist at Amnesty International, told VOA.
The dispute at Bogazici University intensified after a poster depicting the Islamic holy site Kaaba with LGBT flags was displayed in an exhibition on campus as part of protests last week.
On January 29, Soylu tweeted about the arrest of four students over the poster, calling them “LGBT deviants.” Later, Twitter placed a warning on Soylu’s tweet, saying it had violated the company’s rules regarding hateful conduct.
Two of the detained students were arrested on charges of inciting hatred and insulting religious values.
Over the weekend, police raided Bogazici University’s LGBTI+ student club and announced that an investigation for alleged terrorist propaganda was opened against the club after an illegal publication of Kongra-Gel and rainbow flags were found in the club room.
Kongra-Gel is an umbrella organization for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliates. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.
Following the raid, Bulu announced the club’s closure.
Some analysts believe Bogazici University’s LGBT community became the latest target of the government’s broad brush to label dissidents as terrorists.
“What is most striking in the Bogazici case is that LGBTI individuals are now demonized as criminals and terrorists simply because of their sexual orientation, reflecting how far Turkey has drifted away from fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law and due process,” Aykan Erdemir, director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a former Turkish Parliament member, told VOA.
Erdogan praised his party’s youth Monday in a video conference, saying, “You are not the LGBT youth, not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts.”
Two days later, he said, “there is no such thing” as LGBT, adding that "this country is national and spiritual, and will continue to walk into the future as such.”
Yuksel of Amnesty International said the Turkish authorities’ recent anti-LGBT statements were “not only a reflection of the government’s homophobia but also a calculated political strategy.”
“The authorities’ attacks on LGBT (individuals) are the latest frontier in a culture war launched by President Erdogan in an effort to rally his conservative base ahead of elections scheduled for 2023, though rumors suggest they may be held earlier,” she said.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Wednesday the United States is concerned about demonstrations at Bogazici University and strongly condemns the anti-LGBT rhetoric surrounding them.
The United Nations Human Rights agency on Wednesday condemned “homophobic and transphobic comments by (Turkish) officials” and called for a “prompt release of students and protestors arrested for participating in peaceful demonstrations.”
Turkey’s Foreign and Interior ministries did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment. But in a separate statement released Thursday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said, “It was determined that certain groups that are not from the University and are affiliated with terrorist organizations attempted to infiltrate into and provoke the events.
In this respect, necessary and proportional measures are taken within the law against these illegal acts that go beyond the scope of the right to protest.”
Bogazici University was established in 1863 as Robert College by U.S. missionaries and became a public university in 1971.
As one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities, its admission is highly competitive, as only the top percentile of the 2.4 million students competing in a national placement exam at Turkish universities study there free of charge.
“Bogazici University has been the gold standard of meritocracy and vertical mobility in Turkey,” Erdemir of FDD said.
“The university’s pioneer role in introducing Western scholarship and values has made it a target of Turkey’s various Islamist and ultranationalist factions, who accuse the institution of serving ‘foreign’ interests,’” he said.