(New York, NY) — The appointment of a controversial new rector at the prestigious Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey has led to a rash of student protests in recent weeks. Police have responded violently against demonstrators, using tear gas, rubber bullets, riot shields, and batons to deter and detain demonstrators, many of whom are being targeted for their use of LGBTQIA+ pride flags. PEN America calls on the Turkish government to release all those unjustly arrested and to respect the rights of students and faculty to protest peacefully. 

“The attacks on these students’ peaceful protests are egregious and demonstrate a blatant and persistent disregard for freedom of expression by the Turkish government,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s free expression at risk programs. “Students using art to protest have clearly been targeted for their creative expression, and specifically for the use of LGBTQIA+ flags and themes in their artwork. The excessive use of violence in cracking down on these protests is an attack on their most basic human rights, and underscores the students’ concerns that academic freedom is being eroded by the state at Bogazici University. We call on the government of Turkey to release all students and activists jailed in these protests and to stop their broader campaign of violent suppression. Students have a right to continue their peaceful protests without facing retaliation.”

Faculty and students began protesting just days after Melih Bulu was appointed the university’s kayyum, or rector on January 1. Bulu’s ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have led to concerns that he would stifle academic freedom at the prestigious university.

On January 4, faculty and students began peacefully protesting the rector’s appointment by turning their backs to the building that houses the rector’s office, leading to at least 45 arrests in two days. After 25 days of protests, students erected an art exhibition outside of the rector’s office that included a depiction of the Kaaba, where the holy site of Islam was replaced by a character from Turkish folklore, decorated with pride flags; police arrested four students who created the work . On January 29, Minister of the Interior Suleyman Soylu, in a statement on Twitter that has since been removed, condemned the students and their art, calling them “LGBT perverts.”

On Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan echoed this statement, praising his AKP party for carrying on the “glorious history of this nation” and denigrated LGBTQIA+ youth. That same day, police violently arrested dozens of students, with hundreds more detained Tuesday night; police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. In total, 528 people have been arrested this week in connection to the Bogazici protests, and 28 remain in custody. 

Since the July 2016 coup attempt and the imposition of a state of emergency by the current government, freedom of expression has come under severe pressure in Turkey. According to PEN America’s inaugural Freedom to Write Index, Turkey was the third worst jailer of writers and intellectuals worldwide in 2019. PEN America has campaigned on behalf of a number of writers incarcerated or otherwise facing restrictions on their freedom of expression or movement, including the Altan brothers, Ahmet Sik, and Zehra Doğan. 

Turkish exile writer Asli Erdoğan was recently featured in ARC’s new Safety Guide For Artists, a resource that offers practical strategies to help artists understand, navigate, and overcome risk. Recommendations are based upon the voices of thirteen artists who have faced persecution; you can read excerpts from Erdoğan’s testimony here.