Boğaziçi University students detained after protesting government-appointed rector

Turkish authorities on Tuesday morning detained 16 university students who protested the government’s decision to appoint Melih Bulu as rector of Boğaziçi University, Turkish media reported.

Students were protesting the appointment of a rector who was not a member of the staff and without an official election in front of the university campus and clashed with the police. The police “handcuffed” the university gates to keep the students out and used pressurized water and pepper spray against the students. Authorities issued detention warrants for 28 students on charges of “violating the law on meetings and demonstrations,” though they only managed to locate 16 of the students.

Ezgi Önalan, the lawyer for the detained students, said in a video posted on Twitter that the students were subjected to unlawful strip-search and were beaten in the detention center. She said the students had medical reports that confirmed the beating. Önalan added that the police had forcefully entered the students’ homes, and images of broken doors and damaged property were shared on Twitter.

The Boğaziçi Support Group student association demanded on Twitter to know where the detained students were and said, “Where are our friends, Melih Bulu?”

Critics slammed the appointment of Bulu, saying he was unqualified for the job and that a state-appointed rector harmed the independence of the university.

Bulu was a candidate to become a member of parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2015 elections and led a district branch of the AKP in Istanbul. He was also the leader of a team of “virtual raiders” that was established to respond to negative comments online towards Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP and to spread pro-AKP propaganda.

There have also been claims that Bulu plagiarized his master’s and Ph.D. theses. Following the allegations, the higher education council closed Bulu’s theses to online access.

In a statement shared on social media, university faculty members said they would not accept the appointment of the rector “as it clearly violates academic freedom and independence as well as the democratic values of our university.”

Some faculty members protested the appointment by turning their backs on the university building where the rectorate handover ceremony took place this morning. Images of the protest were widely circulated on social media.

Appointing trustees and rectors to academic institutions such as universities has been a common practice during the AKP government. In 2016, a court appointed trustees to take over the management of the foundation that had established Fatih University, a private university affiliated with the Gülen movement which was later closed down. Critics said this was a direct intervention in university management by the state.

Trustees were also appointed to Şifa University, Bursa Orhangazi University, Süleyman Şah University and Mevlana University in government-initiated moves targeting the Gülen movement.

Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. Erdoğan intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

In 2020 a court appointed trustees to the management of the Foundation of Science and Arts (Bilim Sanat Vakfı). The foundation was established by Ahmet Davutoğlu, who served as prime minister between 2014-2016 from the AKP government but launched a new political party in December 2019.

The same month Davutoglu announced his new party, Turkey’s higher education board decided to temporarily revoke the operating license of Istanbul Şehir University, another Davutoglu-affiliated institution, and transferred its administration to Marmara University as a guarantor. The university was completely shut down in July 2020.

After the coup attempt 164 media outlets, 1,058 educational institutions and close to 2,000 NGOs were shut down without any due process.

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