Ankara under fire after detention of academics
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.