Turkey: Student Protesters at Risk of Prosecution

Human Rights Watch

Feb. 18, 2021

(Istanbul) – Turkish authorities have placed hundreds of student
protesters under possible criminal investigation, Human Rights Watch
said today. The students were arrested during weeks of protests
against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of an academic
closely aligned with the government as rector of one of Turkey’s top

Students and the academic staff of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul
have exercised their lawful right to peacefully express their
opposition to the appointment, which they regard as a move to impose
government control over the institution and undermine academic
autonomy and freedom.

“Erdoğan’s appointment of an unelected rector to Boğaziçi University
and the violent arrests of students who had peacefully protested the
move encapsulates the government’s disregard for basic human rights,”
said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights
Watch. “Imposing an unelected presidential-appointee rector on a
university with no consultation demonstrates a lack of respect for
academic freedom and the autonomy of universities in Turkey.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eighteen students, including four who
had been released from police custody, four lawyers, and two
academics, analyzed images and legal documents, and monitored four
student protests.

The protests by students and faculty members started after President
Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu as the Boğaziçi University rector on
January 1, 2021. Bulu, a political ally of the president’s Justice and
Development Party (AKP), has worked in academia and in the defense
industry, and previously served as rector of two private universities.

After police harshly dispersed protests at the campus on January 4,
the Istanbul prosecutor at 3 a.m. on January 5 issued arrest warrants
and ordered the confiscation of cellphones, laptops, and data storage
devices of at least 28 students, allegedly at the request of the
city’s governor. At around 5:30 a.m. police raided at least 17 houses,
in a few cases the wrong houses, and broke down doors, and in one case
walls, to arrest students who took part in protests a day before.

In the following weeks, demonstrations in support of the Boğaziçi
protests were held in other parts of Istanbul and in 38 cities across

The authorities have responded to some of the demonstrations with
excessive police force, summary arrests, and targeted house raids.
They arrested more than 560 protesters in all, most of whom were
released after a short time. Protesters detained in Istanbul in early
January, all of whom were released, told Human Rights Watch that the
police conducted strip-searches and verbally abused and threatened
them in some cases. Three reported that police held guns to their
heads during house raids, and two said the police also slapped and
insulted them.

The president and senior officials have directly encouraged a tough
police response throughout. President Erdoğan initially referred to
the student protesters as “lazy and narrow-minded” but, together with
other government officials, later began to suggest they had terrorism
links, an allegation widely used by the Turkish authorities to
criminalize democratic opposition and government critics.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students and protesters
have been playing a key role in ongoing demonstrations. On January 29,
the authorities initiated a targeted crackdown on LGBT students and
protesters after students mounted an exhibition on Boğaziçi campus in
solidarity with the ongoing protests that included, among many other
pieces, an artwork depicting the Kaaba, the most important holy site
for Muslims, combined with LGBT flags and a mythological creature that
is half-snake half-woman. Police arrested two students who appear in a
video of the exhibition that was streamed to the internet, and two
others who were presumed to be among LGBT organizers on campus.

On the same day, the police raided a room used by a student LGBT club
and confiscated flags and books. Two days later, Bulu, the new rector,
shut down the students’ LGBT club.

The interior minister and Justice and Development Party’s (AKP)
spokesperson called the students “perverts” on several social media
platforms, apparently alluding to the artwork. Courts placed two of
the students in pretrial detention and two under house arrest on
suspicion of “inciting hatred and enmity” (Turkish Penal Code article

Courts have placed at least 25 protesters under house arrest, and 9
remain in pretrial detention at the time of writing, on suspicion of
“inciting hatred” and “violating the law on demonstrations” and for
“resisting police orders.” Dozens were released under judicial
control. The arrests and detentions come against the backdrop of heavy
restrictions on public protest in Turkey; abuses of power by the
government to silence critical groups; and targeting of minority
groups, including LGBT people. The authorities have sometimes
justified bans on demonstrations by citing the risk of Covid-19
alongside unspecified threats to public order.

“The authorities should protect and affirm LGBT students’ rights to
organize and express themselves, rather than attacking them,”
Williamson said, “The Turkish authorities should respect the right to
assembly, stop 9using abusive police power to silence dissent, and
ensure the immediate release of students arbitrarily detained.”

On January 1, 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed rectors
to head five universities including Boğaziçi University, a school that
had been relatively exempt from a government crackdown on academia
that started in 2016. Until 2016, faculty members had elected the
rector of Boğaziçi University. In 2016 Erdoğan appointed a faculty
member who had not run for election over the candidate who had
received the majority of the votes. Despite some debate and protests
over that appointment, the academics and the university students later
accepted the appointee.

After his term ended in November 2020, the appointed rector became a
candidate for a second term. However, President Erdoğan took the
unorthodox step of appointing Melih Bulu, a candidate who was neither
an academic at the school nor, faculty members said, met the academic
criteria for being one.

On January 4, hundreds of students from Boğaziçi and other
universities, along with faculty members and alumni, gathered inside
and outside the campus to protest the appointment and to demand the
rector’s resignation and the right to choose university rectors. The
police responded with teargas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to
disperse the crowd.

Protests have been ongoing ever since. Alongside the student
demonstrations, Boğaziçi academics have been holding silent protests
every day in front of the new rector’s office, turning their backs on
the rectorate for 20 minutes.

Excessive Police Force

The Turkish authorities have consistently responded to the protests
with excessive use of force and arbitrary detention.

Excessive use of force was evident on the first day of protests,
January 4. One Boğaziçi university student who took part in the
protests, and asked that her name be withheld to avoid reprisals, said
that police grabbed and dragged her, injuring her wrists, arms, and
back. Another student, who gave his first name as Muhammed, said that
he saw police officers dragging a protester to a bus parked inside the
university premises.

The police interference was even harsher on February 1, when police
blocked students inside the campus from leaving and protesters outside
the campus from gathering. Human Rights Watch witnessed police
officers use excessive force to arrest at least four peaceful
protesters who showed no signs of aggression. Riot police entered the
campus that evening to disperse the crowd and arrested more than 50

On February 2, the excessive use of force escalated significantly,
Human Rights Watch saw videos and images of students with broken
teeth, faces covered in blood, and several police officers kicking
protesters who were not attempting to resist arrest. Violent police
crackdowns on protesters resumed in the following days.


Turkish authorities have detained more than 560 protesters in at least
38 cities, with 9 currently in pretrial detention and more than 25
under house arrest. Hundreds were released, but many were subject to
conditions such as travel bans and a requirement to sign in at the
nearest police station on a regular basis until further notice.

The first arrests took place on January 5, following a 3 a.m. request
by the Istanbul governor, lawyers said. An Istanbul prosecutor issued
arrest warrants for at least 28 students, including orders to
confiscate cellphones, laptops, and data storage devices. At around
5:30 a.m., special operations police units raided at least 17 houses.

At dawn, police raided a house where Yıldız Idil Şen and Havin Özcan,
two trans women who had joined the protests, were staying. Şen said
that police officers held guns to their heads and slapped them. Şen
also said that police officers remained in the hospital room during a
mandatory medical examination for detainees and used transphobic slurs
throughout the detention. Şen said police officers threatened to rape
her with a baton and told her, “You probably would enjoy this.”

Burak Çetiner, a master’s student at Boğaziçi University who was among
those arrested on January 5, said:

I went to the protests on January 4 and police raided my house where I
live with my mother and father, at dawn on January 5. We woke up to
sounds of hammering on the door. The police officers in riot gear
pushed us on the ground and held guns to our heads. They searched my
room and confiscated my cellphone and later detained me. While in
custody, police handcuffed our hands so tightly that several of us had
bruises on our wrists.

A lawyer who was representing some of the students said:

The process was so fast that the prosecutor sent the orders to the
police in a handwritten note. The prosecutor also issued a 48-hour
long custody period for the detainees. This custody period is in
violation of Turkey’s domestic law considering how light the charges
are. In their quest to detain students, police raided the wrong
houses, broke down doors and walls, ill-treated residents, and used
excessive force. Even hours after the arrests, we as lawyers were not
able to find a case number or a prosecutor to whom we could submit our
appeals. Statements from officials alleging terrorism links are
clearly misleading as there is no evidence to support it.

Information from lawyers and legal documents listed the grounds for
the arrests as “violating the law on demonstrations” (Law 2911) and
“resisting police orders.”

On January 6, the Istanbul governor used the Covid-19 pandemic as a
pretext to announce a ban until February 5 on all protests and public
gatherings in the two Istanbul districts where the Boğaziçi University
campuses are located. During student protests in Ankara, one student’s
leg was broken during their arrest. An opposition politician alleged
that a university in Ankara abruptly laid off at least eight research
assistants who joined protests, citing budget cuts.

Courts imposed judicial control measures and travel bans on 26
detainees released by Istanbul courts in early January, while 2 were
released unconditionally.

On January 29, police cracked down on students whom they believed to
be involved in mounting an exhibition on campus in support of the
protests, which featured an artwork combining the Kaaba with LGBT
flags and a mythological creature. After the exhibition, police
arrested two students who had been visible in a video of the
exhibition that had been streamed on the internet and two who were
known as campus LGBT organizers. The prosecutor is investigating four
of them on suspicion of “provoking hatred or hostility” (Turkish
Criminal Code 216/1). Courts placed two students in pretrial detention
and two others under house arrest. A fifth student briefly arrested
was released.

On February 1, at around midnight, dozens of riot police entered the
Boğaziçi campus and started arresting students who were protesting in
front of the new rector’s office. Police detained at least 51 students
inside the campus and about 108 outside. The prosecutor is
investigating several of them on suspicion of “damaging public
property,” “violating the law on demonstrations,” and “depriving an
individual of their physical liberty,” which carries a prison sentence
of one to five years.

The number of detainees increased enormously in the following days.
The deputy interior minister announced on February 4 that 528
protesters had been detained in 38 cities in one month and added “No
one should test our state’s strength.” Human Rights Watch estimates
the total number of police arrests to be around 560.

Anti-LGBT Discourse

Government officials have used anti-LGBT rhetoric to appeal to
conservative outrage and to delegitimize the protests, Human Rights
Watch said.

Many LGBT students have been heavily involved in the protests, in part
because of concerns that the new rector, who had posted views on
social media that the students characterized as anti-LGBT, would crack
down on LGBT organizing and threaten the precarious safe spaces they
had carved out on campus. A trans woman studying at Boğaziçi
University said:

There are minority groups who are more affected [by the appointment]
than the majority, for instance, LGBTQIs [lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, queer and intersex people], especially trans women and
men. At a time when trans women like me have very limited safe space,
such an appointment seems like an attempt to strip us of this space.
We just want to exist.

Other students expressed concern that the new rector might stifle the
limited amount of free speech in the university by allowing police to
enter the campus in cases of protests and student club activities
deemed inappropriate, such as LGBT movie nights.

On January 29, the interior minister called LGBT protesters “perverts”
on his Twitter account. Twitter placed a warning on the tweet soon
after for violating its rules about “hateful conduct.” President
Erdoğan on the other hand, speaking at a public event of his party on
February 3, described the students as “terrorists” and said “LGBT,
there is no such thing. This country is national and moral.”

The students’ fears about the new rector were borne out on February 2,
when Turkey’s communication director, Fahrettin Altun, shared a
document on his Twitter account and said students were protesting
because Bulu signed a decision to shut down Boğaziçi University’s LGBT

Crackdown on Academia

The laws and regulations on universities in Turkey have been amended
and revised under political power shifts since the 1940s.

The universities had considerable autonomy in selecting their own
rectors until 1981 when the then military junta established a body
called the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) to select a pool of
candidates for top university posts for the president of the country
to choose from. In 1992, the government restructured the election
system to allow faculty members to take part in selecting candidates.

The most recent amendments to the appointment of rectors came while
Turkey was under emergency rule after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.
A state of emergency decree (KHK 676) granted the president the
authority to appoint rectors, and another decree in 2018 (KHK 703)
reduced the requirement for candidates from five years as a professor
to three.

Between 2016 and 2018, the government used decree laws to shut down 15
private universities, dismiss more than 6,800 academics, and prosecute
hundreds of academics based on alleged terrorism links for signing a
petition calling for a peaceful resolution to the decades-long Kurdish
conflict in southeastern Turkey.

In addition to barring purged academics from working in universities
in Turkey, the government also canceled their passports, leaving them
unable to work or to travel to seek employment outside the country.

The government increased funding for Boğaziçi University after Bulu
became rector. President Erdoğan announced through the Official
Gazette on February 6 the formation of two new faculties at the
university. Students and critics see the move as an attempt to bring
in academics from other universities to allow the new rector to form a
management team to determine decision-making structures as well as to
exert influence over the university’s policies. Many academics at the
university have reportedly refused to work with him.

In 2020, President Erdoğan stripped Istanbul Şehir University of its
permit to operate. Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister under
Erdoğan and now a political rival, was the university’s founder.
Erdoğan’s move to close it down was widely seen in the independent
media as a reprisal against Davutoğlu.

Since the coup attempt, rectors, or academics linked with the ruling
Justice and Development Party, have had a significant advantage with
respect to promotions. President Erdoğan has appointed several former
AKP members of parliament or former party members as rectors of
leading universities in recent years.

“Ankara should understand universities are not government offices and
academics are not mere civil servants,” said Esra Mungan, an academic
at Boğaziçi University. Burak Çetiner, a student in a master’s program
at the university said that “[t]here is pressure on all parts of life
in Turkey including universities.”

In 2018 a group of students peacefully protested a stand set up by
another group of students on the campus of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi
University to support the Turkish military operation in the northwest
Syrian district of Afrin. Thirty students who were at the protest were
first detained and later charged with “spreading terrorist
propaganda.” In 2020, an Istanbul court sentenced 27 of them to 10
months in prison and fined the other 3.

International Standards on Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

Freedoms of expression and assembly, guaranteed under international
law, including by articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on
Human Rights (ECHR) and articles 19 and 21 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) respectively, extend to
everyone and protect the right to peaceful protest. In an academic
setting and combined with the right to education (guaranteed under
article 2 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR and article 13 of the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(ICESCR)), these freedoms take on a particular significance and are
core to the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Academic freedom is a broad principle that protects educators and
students and applies to the complete range of academic pursuits –
formal and informal, inside the classroom and beyond. The Committee on
Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which interprets the
ICESCR, has stated that “academic freedom includes the liberty of
individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system
in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination
or fear of repression by the State or any other actor….” The committee
underlined that “enjoyment of academic freedom requires the autonomy
of institutions of higher education.”

The Council of Europe requires member states such as Turkey to respect
both academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and its Committee of
Ministers has issued multiple recommendations to member states on this
responsibility. The committee has noted that “academic freedom and
institutional autonomy are essential values of higher education” that
“serve the common good of democratic societies.” The committee defines
academic freedom as, among other things, guaranteeing “the right of
both institutions and individuals to be protected against undue
outside interference, by public authorities or others.” The European
Union, of which Turkey is not a member, includes the obligation to
respect academic freedom in article 13 of its Charter of Fundamental


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