Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK) has just unveiled its revised discipline regulations for Turkey’s universities, which will give students greater freedom to distribute flyers and discuss their political views without facing harsh punishment.
Limited though it is, this move is obviously a positive development. But will the judicial authorities follow suit and also adopt a less punitive attitude towards students and their democratic rights? In response to a question posed in Parliament, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin recently made public the official tally of students behind bars in this country. As of Jan. 31, 2,824 students were being held in Turkey’s prisons, 1,778 of them jailed pending trial while 1,046 had already been sentenced. Of those in jail, 787 were suspected of, or sentenced for, “membership of an armed terrorist organisation.”
With such a high rate of arrests, Turkey could almost open a university in prison; several higher education institutions in this country have fewer people enrolled.
Sevil Sevimli, a French-Turkish 20-year-old Erasmus exchange student, was arrested in May and charged with being a member of the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) organisation. The “evidence” against her included her participation in the May 1 demonstration and attendance at a concert given by the popular group Yorum, which faces legal woes of its own. While these activities would have been considered well within students’ rights in France, they were seen as threatening by Turkey’s judicial authorities. Though released after a court order on August 6, the young woman is still not free to leave the country as the judicial procedure against her is ongoing.
This incident, which affects a dual national, has shone a spotlight on the fate of jailed Turkish students. The growing concern expressed by international human rights organisations could undermine the recent trend that has seen more foreign students choosing to study in Turkey, attracted by the country’s dynamism. If the Turkish authorities are to succeed in reaching their goal of attracting up to 100,000 foreign students, compared to around 30,000 currently, the quality of education alone will not be sufficient. They also need to guarantee a safe and free environment.
Several students were arrested and indicted for unfurling banners demanding free education. Ironically, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently announced his intention to abolish tuition fees in universities. The judicial cases against the protesters, however, continue. It appears that what irked the authorities was less the demand itself and more the manner in which it was conveyed. They expect obedient students who do not challenge the powers-that-be, even if they do so in a peaceful manner.
Aside from the psychological impact of imprisonment, many of the young people who were arrested have also encountered significant obstacles when they tried to pursue their education. When I met Cihan Kirmizigul, the Kurdish student whose “poshu” scarf led to an arrest for his alleged involvement in a bomb attack, he explained that in spite of petitioning the authorities and his university, he had been unable to sit for his exams during the 25 months he spent in jail.
Some others were able to sit for their exams, but recent media reports suggested that some of them were charged expenses of up to TL 2,000 for the privilege, as they had to be driven to school under police escort. Sevil Sevimli was apparently charged TL 50 for the translation of each letter she wrote in French to her friends and relatives.
On top of the judicial procedures against them, many of the students were also penalized by their universities, at times before a court ruling. The new YÖK regulations should at least prevent such arbitrary measures. Chanting slogans or distributing flyers will not longer be considered a crime, nor will activities outside the campus be subject to disciplinary action.
But these steps, while encouraging, need to be accompanied by a radical change of mentality in the government and the judiciary. The Minister for Science, Industry and Technology Nihat Ergün recently deplored that too few Turkish students become researchers compared to other countries. Improving the teaching of science and mathematics may be part of the solution, but creating a free environment that promotes, rather than sanctions, critical thinking and encourages people to think outside the box is also crucial to unlocking students’ creativity.
With the waves of arrests in the past few years, Turkey has not only blighted many young people’s lives, but it has also undermined its own long-term interests. Let’s hope that the timid relaxation of the YÖK rules marks the beginning of a broader trend.