The reason for the petition, which has been signed by about two thousand employees from circa ninety Turkish universities since January, is the internal war against mainly Kurds that the government troops are carrying out in the southeast of Turkey. Fighting in the area has escalated over the past months, with shootings, mass deportations and starvation of the population. Media reports of corpses being left on the streets because families who try to remove them, are also shot at.
The petition speaks of a “deliberate and planned massacre, which is a serious violation of both Turkish legislation and international treaties”. The signees demand that the government stops its actions, allows access for national and international reporters, prosecutes those who are guilty of human rights violations and sets up a peace process that also respects the demands of the Kurdish movement.
All this did not go down very well with president Erdogan. The petition has led, writes scientific journal Nature, among others, to a raging reaction in which he accused the academics of “supporting terrorists and insulting the Turkish republic”. The Public Prosecutor announced legal action; university boards initiated their own investigation into those among their own staff who signed the petition. If they are accused of unlawful political agitation, this may result in their dismissal. Nature quoted a professor of Law who said, “we are all waiting on the police”. NRC Handelsblad quoted a Turkish sociologist last week, who described what happened to ‘dissident’ scientists: “Their office door was daubed with a red X. Or there was a note on the door saying: ‘We don’t want you here’.”
One of the signers is a former PhD student of the Maastricht School of Business and Economics, with whom rector Luc Soete is still in contact. The man - whose name will not be mentioned here upon request of Soete “so as not to put him in further difficulties” - is now a professor in Ankara and wrote a pressing letter to ‘Globelics’, a worldwide group of researchers in the field of economics and technology, partly founded by Soete. In it, he does not only speak of the official prosecution by the authorities but also the death threats by fascist groups.
Soete also received requests for support from other Turkish UM alumni and has asked the European University Association (of which the Dutch body of rectors is a member) to undertake action, but it appeared that the EUA had already done so that same day of its own accord. The Turkish EUA board member, rector of the Boğaziçi University, was one of the organisers of the protest. Under the flag of the worldwide Scholars at Risk network, the Dutch KNAW has supported the infringement of the academic freedom in Turkey.
Turkish political scientist Birsen Erdogan, lecturer of International Politics at the Maastricht Faculty of Law, and absolutely “not related to the president”, hasn’t seen any organised protest in the Netherlands against the breach of academic freedom in Turkey. “Maybe we should do something here too, I will approach our dean,” she says. She did support Turkish initiatives that make a stand for threatened university staff members, such as those of their present and past students. In addition, she puts the situation in her native country into perspective: “People have indeed been questioned, but until now all have been released again. My father is a judge in Turkey, I discussed the case with him and he also thinks that the petition signers have broke no law. To do so, you must incite violence and they didn’t do that. He therefore does not think that there will be any convictions. The government’s actions are meant to intimidate people. And it works, I have noticed; I have Turkish friends who are afraid to discuss such topics. You must not surrender to this paranoia. I, for example, am studying the Armenian genocide, which is a very sensitive issue in Turkey, but I am not afraid when I go there. Nothing has ever happened to me.”