HRW calls on Turkey to release Boğaziçi protestors and respect freedom of assembly

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Turkish government to release people who were detained in protests against the appointment of a pro-government rector to İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University and to respect the freedom of assembly in the country.

“Turkish authorities have placed hundreds of student protesters under possible criminal investigation,” HRW said today.

Students and alumni as well as politicians and activists have since the beginning of January been protesting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to appoint Melih Bulu, an unsuccessful candidate from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a seat in parliament, as the university’s rector.

“Erdoğan’s appointment of an unelected rector to Boğaziçi University and the violent arrests of students who had peacefully protested the move encapsulates the government’s disregard for basic human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Imposing an unelected presidential-appointee rector on a university with no consultation demonstrates a lack of respect for academic freedom and the autonomy of universities in Turkey.”

The protestors, the majority of them university students, demand the release of previously detained and arrested demonstrators, the resignation of Bulu and the appointment of a rector from the university staff after the holding of an election.

The authorities have responded to some of the demonstrations with excessive force, summary arrests and targeted house raids. More than 560 people have been arrested for participating in the youth-driven demonstrations that have spread to 38 provinces across Turkey.

President Erdoğan and senior officials have directly encouraged a tough police response throughout. President Erdoğan, who ignored the protests at first, this month started comparing the protestors to “terrorists” and blaming the LGBT movement for the protests against Bulu’s appointment.

Erdoğan’s far-right ally Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), called protestors “poisonous snakes whose heads need to be crushed,” “terrorists,” “vandals” and “barbarians.”

The interior minister and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesperson called the students “perverts” on several social media platforms.

Turkish courts have put at least 25 protesters under house arrest, and nine are currently in pretrial detention on suspicion of “inciting hatred” and “violating the law on demonstrations” and for “resisting police orders.”

“The authorities should protect and affirm LGBT students’ rights to organize and express themselves, rather than attacking them,” Williamson said, “The Turkish authorities should respect the right to assembly, stop using abusive police power to silence dissent, and ensure the immediate release of students arbitrarily detained.”

The most recent amendments to the appointment of rectors came while Turkey was under a state of emergency after a July 15, 2016 coup attempt. A state of emergency decree (KHK 676) granted the president the authority to appoint rectors, and another decree in 2018 (KHK 703) reduced the requirement for candidates from five years as a professor to three.

Between 2016 and 2018, the government used decree-laws to shut down 15 private universities, dismiss more than 6,800 academics and prosecute hundreds of academics based on alleged terrorism links.

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