Ankara under fire after detention of academics

Friday 29/01/2016
Reporters attend march marking Journalism Day in Istanbul, on January 10th.

Istanbul - Turkey’s government has come under fire from critics at home and allies abroad for the harsh treat­ment of academics who disagreed with its Kurdish policy, but the signs are that the adminis­tration will stick to its hardline ap­proach.
More than 1,100 academics from universities around Turkey and more than 300 supporters abroad signed a petition that blamed the government for the renewed blood­shed in Kurdish regions, where members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces have been battling for months. Human rights activists say more than 160 civilians caught in the crossfire were killed between early December and early January.
“The Turkish Republic has ef­fectively condemned its citizens in Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre, Silopi and many other towns and neigh­bourhoods in the Kurdish provinces to hunger and has deprived them of water through the use of cur­fews that have lasted for weeks,” the petition reads. “This deliberate and planned massacre is in serious violation of Turkey’s own laws and international treaties.”
The petition calls for Ankara to restart peace negotiations with the PKK. The document was immedi­ately criticised by government sup­porters because it failed to mention alleged PKK crimes.
In a furious rebuke, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ac­cused the academics of supporting the PKK, saying: “These are people in the dark. They are cruel and des­picable.”
Prosecutors investigated the academics for spreading “terrorist propaganda” and 18 of the signato­ries were briefly detained.
US Vice-President Joe Biden, on a visit to Istanbul, warned Turkey not to restrict free speech. “When the media are intimidated or impris­oned for critical reporting, when internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites like YouTube or Twitter are shut down and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a peti­tion, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set,” Biden said.
Turkey’s Western allies have been concerned for some time about a perceived clampdown by the Ankara government on its critics which threatens freedom of speech.
Two prominent journalists were put into pre-trial detention in No­vember because their newspaper printed a story about alleged arms shipments by Turkey to rebels in Syria. Dozens of investigations and court cases have been launched against journalists, activists and students for allegedly insulting Erdogan. Some investigations fol­lowed complaints by the presi­dent’s lawyers.
Erdogan’s attack on the academ­ics and the actions by prosecutors and police — anti-terror officers raided a house of one of the peti­tion’s signatories — triggered new criticism. “I am not surprised at all,” Nuray Mert, a columnist wrote in the opposition newspaper Cum­huriyet. “All authoritarian regimes are the enemies of ‘intellectuals’,” she added in a word play involving the Turkish word aydin, which can mean either “light” and “intellec­tual”.
Mert accused the government of making scapegoats out of the aca­demics so as to evade responsibility for things that go wrong.
The European Union’s foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS), said in a statement the treatment of the academics was “extremely worry­ing”. While the European Union condemned all acts of terrorism, including those committed by the PKK, “We re-state that the fight against terrorism must fully respect obligations under international law, including human rights and hu­manitarian law,” the statement said.
“Freedom of expression must be upheld,” the EEAS warned EU can­didate country Turkey.
Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Ankara, said the war in Syria and other international issues were keeping attention fo­cused outside Turkey. The Euro­pean Union was “highly worried”, Pierini wrote on Twitter. But “Tur­key’s smashing of [the] rule of law” was “conveniently hidden by other crises”.
British Ambassador to Turkey Richard Moore stressed that free­dom of expression was vital for a democracy and his American col­league John Bass said he was “con­cerned about this pressure having a chilling effect on legitimate politi­cal discourse across Turkish society regarding the sources of and solu­tions to the ongoing violence”.
It is highly unusual for ambas­sadors of Turkey’s Western part­ners to criticise the government so openly on a domestic issue but poli­ticians in Ankara showed no sign of backing down. Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara and a prominent member of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said on Twitter that Bass should apolo­gise to Turkey. “In my opinion, you should go home to your country,” Gokcek said.
Turkish Prime Minister Ah­met Davutoglu also struck a defi­ant stance. No democratic coun­try would accept an armed group outside the legitimate forces of the state, he said in reference to the PKK. “Those districts will be cleaned” of rebel fighters, Davuto­glu said about areas where rebels and security forces are fighting. He also suggested new efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict could be started once the PKK was defeated. “Afterward, we can talk about everything,” he said.
In an attempt to deflect criti­cism, Davutoglu’s government is reportedly preparing political re­forms that would benefit Kurds and religious minorities, such as Tur­key’s small Christian community.
News reports said Ankara would allow airline announcements to be made in the Kurdish language and give the green light to a re-estab­lishment of Kurdish place names that had been “Turkified” by the state. The government was also planning to allow Armenian Chris­tians more religious services in the historic church on Akdamar island in Lake Van in the south-east, the reports said.