Ongoing student arrests spark outrage, protests
With hundreds of university students behind bars, professors, students and their supporters are organising protests and raising awareness.
By Anna Wood for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 18/04/12
"The truth is that when I finally learned what happened, I was relieved," Aysenur Ozcan confessed. "At least she wasn't dead."
Ozcan was explaining how she discovered that her little sister, Seyma Ozcan, was being held behind bars in Turkey for an indeterminate period.
Seyma Ozcan was a second-year student at Turkey's most prestigious public university, Bogazici, when the police barged into her apartment early one morning and took her away. It took four days for her sister to learn that she was in prison on unspecified charges.
Seyma Ozcan presumably remains in custody for an internship application she submitted -- but didn't accept -- to a legal newspaper that allegedly has ties to an outlawed leftist group.
Ozcan is one among an estimated 600 students who have been suddenly taken into custody.
The students, like Ozcan, are frequently not told the charges on which they are being held. Similarly, the expected length of their imprisonment, the date of any future trial and other details remain unknown.
Detainments may last weeks, months, or even years. Cihan Kirmizigul, a Galatasaray University student accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation, was released at the end of March, after 25 months in prison.
These arrests and detainments, which many say parallel those of journalists and political dissenters in Turkey, have sparked protests from students, professors and the community at large.
Ozgur Uckan, a communications and information economy professor at Bilgi University, is part of a movement called "Don't Touch My Student!" that is collecting signatures and raising awareness about these students' conditions.
"As an educator, I view this situation as an attack on freedom of thought and expression, on educational rights and university autonomy, and on the right to organise," Uckan told SES Türkiye.
The same movement organises another type of nonviolent protest, bringing professors to teach classes outside of the prisons in which students are being held.
The real difficulty, Uckan explained, lies in Turkey's problematic judicial process.
"Problems in the functioning of the justice system extend the amount of time people remain imprisoned," he said, adding, "This results in a type of punishment that infringes on the principle of legal moderation."
The arrests also inspired students and scholars in Turkey and the United States to establish an organisation that aims to raise national and international awareness, the Arrested Students Solidarity Initiative.
Ekim Arbatli, a Turkish political science doctoral student studying in the United States, is a member of the initiative and the sister of another imprisoned student. She returned to Istanbul when she learned of the surprise arrest of her brother, Deniz Kucukbumin, only to discover first-hand how opaque the legal process is.
After listing potential charges that could be levelled against Kucukbumin, who was involved with the publication of a leftist journal, she confessed, "We were left simply hypothesising what he could possibly be accused of."
Members of the initiative are quick to emphasise that they don't want the focus to be on individual students' stories, but rather on the political culture that allows for these arrests, as well as those of journalists, academics and people accused in the KCK trials, on vague terrorism charges.
"Turkey is being portrayed as an ideal democracy and a model for the Arab world, but I think we still need some serious reforms to guarantee freedom of speech and thought in this country," said Arbatli.
Uckan, who compared the current academic climate to what he experienced as a university student during the 1980 military coup, is convinced that real change is possible through collective effort and protest, particularly through online social media.
"The governing power will not be able to completely silence the opposition," he said. "However, right now it's exacting huge penalties from the youth, the universities, culture, education and society."