Accusations of “propagating terrorism” made against more than 1,000 Turkish academics are an attempt to destroy the country’s last bastion of free speech, one under-threat scholar has claimed.
Hundreds of academics are currently waiting to see if they will be prosecuted or sacked for signing a petition calling for an end to violence in Turkey’s southeast, where government forces are fighting Kurdish separatists.
It follows the arrest on 15 January of 33 scholars who signed the petition. They were later released.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, branded the signatories “traitors” and called for universities to discipline the “so-called academics”.
“Everyone who benefits from this state but is now an enemy of the state must be punished without further delay,” said Mr Erdoğan.
The crackdown has drawn worldwide criticism, with about 1,000 UK academics signing a statement condemning the attack on academic freedom, and the European University Association has said it is “deeply concerned” by the move.
Veli Yadirgi, an expert in Turkish-Kurdish relations based in the department of development studies at Soas, University of London, is one of the petition’s signatories.
Dr Yadirgi said his dual Turkish-UK nationality may leave him liable to prosecution for treason under Turkish law.
“If I flew into Istanbul or Ankara, I could be taken straight to a prison cell,” said Dr Yadirgi, whose PhD fieldwork in 2009 was carried out in the region now blighted by military action.
“It is bizarre that you can face a criminal investigation for simply signing a petition that demands an end to war,” he added.
The Middle East expert said the petition made it clear that signatories “did not support or glorify violence in any way”.
Dr Yadirgi believes the latest threats were part of an effort to silence dissent in academia, from which some of the strongest criticisms of President Erdoğan’s government have come.
“The ruling AKP party have dominance over most sections of society from the media to the law, but it has not silenced higher education,” he said.
“The latest draconian measure is an attempt to dominate this area and silence any form of dissent,” he added.
The call to punish academics would appear to run contrary to recent university reforms that increased institutional autonomy and academic freedom in Turkey, where the president has the power to appoint rectors.
“Turkey is now an autocratic country, in which one – a political strongman – says what he thinks and everyone is expected to follow suit,” said Dr Yadirgi.
But Turks are not willing to be suppressed and silenced, he added, pointing to the fact that many more academics had signed the petition since disciplinary action was launched.
“The more they suppress people, the more support academics have received in return,” he added.