A fact-finding mission in Turkey by the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, or IHRNASS, has concluded that criminal charges brought against eight leading academics and scientists are not supported by evidence.

The network has called on the Turkish government to release from prison one scientist serving a 13-year sentence, release immediately and drop all charges against three others held in long-term detention, and drop charges against four others.

All are charged with terrorism-related crimes, yet none is known to have advocated or practised violence, the network says.

It also reports “deep concern” over violations of academic freedom and the loss of university independence in Turkey.

The eight academics and scientists jailed, detained or charged include professor Kemal Gürüz, former chair of the Higher Education Council (YÖK) and former president of the Turkish science funding agency, TÜBITAK. Five of the others are former university rectors.

Six of the eight have been sentenced to jail terms of between 10 and 23 years.

A copy of the pre-publication draft of the report of an IHRNASS fact-finding mission to Turkey carried out earlier this year, and due to be published this month, has been obtained by University World News.

Scientists, Engineers, and Medical Doctors in Turkey: A human rights mission was written by US Nobel laureate Peter Diamond, German surgeon Hans-Peter Zenner and Carol Corillon, executive director of the IHRNASS.

In the report the INHRNASS concludes that the system of justice under which the academics had been charged is “far from a system that would satisfy international standards of justice”. In five cases the academics have been detained pre-trial, two of them for more than four years.

Analysis of their trials, along with those of hundreds of other defendants, repeatedly found the police, prosecutors and the judges to be ‘in contravention of their internationally recognised legal obligations and Turkish due process laws”, INHRNASS says.

The Ergenekon case

Gürüz was charged in the Ergenekon case, in which many politicians, military officers and academics were arrested for alleged links to a shadowy organisation accused of plotting to destabilise the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a religious conservative who has reined in the influence of the country’s powerful generals.

The case has polarised politics in Turkey, where the military has staged several coups and forced one Islamist-leaning government out of power in recent decades.

The Erdogan administration has detained or imprisoned hundreds of serving and retired military officers in the past few years on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government, the report says.

Opinion in Turkey is divided between those who see the military as guardians of the secular republic founded by Kemal Ataturk, believing that in the past they have stepped in only to rescue the country from untrustworthy politicians and unstable government; and those who see the military as blocking progress towards real democracy and-or religious freedom.

Some opponents of the government say Gürüz, a republican secularist, has been targeted because of his role, as head of the YÖK, in implementing the ban on wearing headscarves in universities, which was made law in the wake of the last overt military coup in the early 1980s.

In June Gürüz attempted to commit suicide in prison. This month he was sentenced to 13 years and nine months in jail. He is awaiting trial in another case related to the generals’ ‘post-modern’ coup in 1997, in which the Islamist-led government was forced to stand down.

IHRNASS says that no credible evidence against Gürüz was ever produced and that his “unjust treatment” raises concerns about the “persistent erosion of academic values, free speech, and independent thinking through interrogations, detentions and intimidation of scholars and intellectuals” in Turkey.

Other cases

Peter Diamond says: “Given all of the information available to us, there appears to be no credible basis on which to prejudge any of our eight colleagues guilty of committing the crimes of which they have been accused.”

The five former university rectors are: Dr Kemal Alemdaroglu, a retired surgeon and former rector of the University of Istanbul; Dr Riza Ferit Bernay, a medical doctor and former rector of Ondokuz Mayis (19 May) University; Dr Mehmet Haberal, a transplant surgeon and former rector of Baskent University; Dr Fatih Hilmioglu, a medical doctor and former rector of Inönü University; and Dr Mustafa Abbas Yurtkuran, a medical doctor and former rector of Uludag University.

The other two cases are those of Professor Emerita Büsra Ersanli, a political scientist and academic at Marmara University, and Dr Frank A Yarman, an engineer and former business executive.

The IHRNASS report says that Alemdaroglu, Bernay, Haberal, Hilmioglu and Yurtkuran, who also faced charges in the Ergenekon trial, did not receive fair trials and should be given a general amnesty or be released and given a new trial that meets international standards of justice.

Yarman was tried and sentenced in a separate trial related to ‘Operation Sledgehammer’ – an alleged attempt in 2003 to carry out a coup that never materialised – in which no convincing evidence against him was produced, the report adds.

Ersanli is a defendant in another trial related to the Kurdish issue.

The fact-finding mission

The network, which is made up of 79 national academies and scholarly societies around the world that work together on serious science and human rights issues, says the situations faced by the academics are illustrative of thousands of cases in Turkey that have been or are being tried under anti-terrorism laws and by using ‘secret’ witnesses.

The IHRNASS report is based on the findings of a fact-finding mission to Turkey, undertaken in February this year in response to grave concerns by the academies’ human rights committees and the IHRNASS regarding criminal charges brought against the former university leaders and scientists.

It also expresses “deep concern” about a steady loss of independence by major Turkish universities. It said the Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK) had replaced respected scholars and administrators with “significantly less qualified and more ideologically and Islamic-focused” supporters of the ruling political party.

“We were told of students, scholars, and faculty who are being targeted for peacefully urging greater democratic reforms and respect for freedom of expression,” the report says.

“Hundreds of student dissidents have been beaten, tear-gassed, sprayed with high-pressure water cannons, and taken to prison simply for attempting to hold peaceful demonstrations on their campuses.”

The report cites an incident on 18 December last year at the Middle East Technical University, or METU, where 300 students assembled to hold a demonstration on campus against government higher education policies and other issues.

It was timed to coincide with a visit by Erdogan to watch, via a monitoring station on campus, the launch in China of Turkey’s first domestic high-resolution satellite.

Several hours before the visit 3,000 police personnel arrived on campus in armoured vehicles and tanks. They used excessive force to break up the demonstration before the premier arrived, the report says, employing pepper spray and water cannons and firing off some 2,000 tear gas canisters, some of which hit and injured students and many of which smashed through the windows of occupied classrooms and a campus nursery.

According to GITTUrkey, an international group of researchers supporting and advocating freedom of research in Turkey, the METU incident was one of an increasing number of direct assaults on university students and faculty members.

They said: “The authoritarian tendencies in the ruling party and the use of both police violence and judicial repression are growing daily. They pose severe impediments to freedom of thought and expression in every domain.”

The group has also voiced concerns about the violations of rights and liberties of academics in recent years and has created a database of case information. Among the worst affected are researchers who do research on Kurdish issues and who “take political and social stances that concur with their academic work”, but also those who do research on other minorities.

A well-known example is the ongoing prosecution of sociologist Pinar Selek, who is an advocate for the rights of socially disadvantaged children and women, as well as minorities such as Kurds and Armenians.

She has been acquitted three times of terrorism charges, due to lack of evidence, in a case that has dragged on for 14 years; she is linked to an explosion that court investigations have established to have been not a bomb but the result of an accidental gas leak.

In January 2013, the acquittal was overruled and she was given a life sentence. Three international organisations – the International Federation for Human Rights, the World Organisation Against Torture, and PEN International (the world’s oldest human rights organisation) – have campaigned on her behalf against judicial harassment.

It is alleged that torture was used to force Selek to reveal the names of interview subjects, in contravention of the ethics rules governing research. Her case is set against a backdrop of increasing detention and prosecution of academics who conduct research on subjects deemed sensitive by government.

The president of the Middle East Studies Association, Peter Sluglett, wrote to Erdogan accusing the government of seeking to make an example of Selek, “precisely to create an intimidating climate that inhibits the work of other scholars, researchers, students and academic study participants”.

Scientists, Engineers, and Medical Doctors in Turkey: A human rights mission is a report to the International Human Rights Network of Academics and Scholarly Societies. Authors: Carol Corillon, Peter Diamond and Hans-Peter Zenner representing the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, US, and of the Human Rights Committee of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.