As student arrests rise, opposition concerns mount
With the number of students in prison topping 2,800, activists and opposition groups see a worrying trend.
By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 21/08/12
Following a parliamentary question addressed to him this month, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin announced that as of January 31st there were 2,824 students in prison, of which 1,778 are awaiting trial and 1,046 have been convicted and sentenced by a court. Among those awaiting trial, 609 are accused of membership in an armed terrorist organisation, while of those convicted 178 were charged with membership in an armed terrorist organisation.
A student argues with riot police during a protest at the Middle East Technical University (ODTU) in Ankara December 15th 2010. [Reuters]
The numbers have provoked a sharp response from the main opposition parties, academics, student movements and human rights advocates who argue freedom of expression and peaceful political dissent are being muzzled by the government. Asked by SES Türkiye to respond, AKP deputies Fikri Isik and Oya Eronat declined to comment.
CHP deputy Safak Pavey told SES Türkiye there is currently a dangerous situation where young people can be arrested and be held behind bars for an undetermined amount of time just because they use their democratic rights within the society.
The crimes students are charged of range from hanging banners to advocate for free education, to attending May 1st celebrations, to belonging to or making propaganda on behalf of an armed terrorist organisation during rallies. Following a decision given by the Supreme Court in 2008, it is possible to be charged with making illegal propaganda for attending a protest meeting held by an organisation.
A recent case that brought the issue into the media spotlight was that of Sevil Sevimli a Kurdish-origin student who arrived in Turkey from France as part of the Erasmus student exchange programme. Sevimli was arrested after attending the May Day parade and a concert by Yorum, a socialist-leaning band. After being released, she was given a trial date for September 26th on charges of belong to the outlawed far-left terrorist group DHKP/C.
Last year in December, several students were arrested and put into prison when they protested the death of Metin Lokumcu. Lokumcu died of a heart attack after inhaling pepper spray used by the police at an opposition protest in the Black Sea city of Hopa during the visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In another controversial case, in February 2010, Galatasaray University student Cihan Kirmizigul was arrested for 25 months before being released pending trial on the grounds that he was wearing a Kurdish scarf called a "poshu" near a grocery store that had previously been attacked with a Molotov cocktail by individuals wearing the same clothing.
Pavey said the arrests have taken a drastic toll on young student's lives. "We should consider those young people as our real and precious citizens, instead of threats," she said. "Young people are, by definition, able to express discontent about whatever it is. It is necessary to provide them with adequate opportunities to increase their quality of life."
The far-right MHP agrees with the CHP on the issue. Zuhal Topcu, a leading deputy in the party, stated that the MHP is closely following the situation of arrested students.
Parliament passed in June a reform package to accelerate the judicial process and to decrease the long-debated lengthy pre-trial detention periods. The package also brought strict rules for arrest orders by requiring judges to provide concrete justification for arrests.
"According to the third judiciary package, some legal provisions were introduced to make it much more difficult to restrict the freedom of students," Topcu told SES Türkiye. "However, it's up to the initiative of the judiciary to really implement that package in a fair way."
On the other hand, Topcu pointed out the main crimes students are accused of are against national security, disturbing public order and social consciousness. "So, while supporting them, we are also giving importance to not allow any agitation from other parties and their relevant civil society branches to exploit this case," she added.
Human rights advocates argue the increase in student arrests is linked to the rising intolerance of the ruling AK Party government regarding any kind of opposition.
"These [student] arrests and detainments are in parallel with those of journalists and political dissenters in Turkey. In many areas, governmental policies have been clearly going bust," Ozgur Uckan, a communications professor from Bilgi University, told SES Türkiye.
Uckan is part of a movement called "Don't Touch My Student!" aimed at raising awareness about the conditions of arrested students. The movement gathers professors to teach classes outside of the prisons where students are being held.
"The aim of those students is generally a search of freedom to think, to express and to have access to the information," he said. "However, such illegal pressure on students is likely to backlash and instead of oppressing them it will lead to the creation of a more massive and united opposition front," he added.
The arrests have also inspired students to establish the Arrested Students Solidarity Initiative. Ahmet Saymadi, a member of the initiative, thinks that not only the ruling government but also previous ones have tried to pressure and dominate society to keep it under control.
"When proceeding like this, they take the most dynamic segment of the society as a target," Saymadi told SES Türkiye.
"The political activities of students become subject to wire-tapping and transformed into indictments, while the publications that they are reading at home are taken as evidence. I can even argue that some people are trying to dispossess a whole generation of its right to do politics," Saymadi said.
Experts argue that the country's strict anti-terror and penal laws should be amended, as they are primarily responsible for arresting perceived opponents, especially Kurdish rights advocates and socialist students. The creation of specially authorised courts in 2006 further deteriorated the situation by granting wide-ranging powers to the courts to apprehend political dissidents.
Between 2005 and 2007, parliament passed a series of laws, causing a 2.8-fold increase in the number of people detained on terrorism charges by 2011, according to the Ministry of Justice. This number continued to increase in 2012, but the legal reform package passed in July could lead to a decrease in the number and length of detentions going forward.