Protests at Boğaziçi University. Protests at Boğaziçi University. Photo: Hilmi Hacaloğlu / Wikimedia Commons / cropped original image / image is made available by Voice of America in the public domain, linked at bottom of article

Amid a crackdown on dissent and academic freedom by Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime, students in Istanbul stand defiant, reports Ceren Sagir

“We won’t look down” has become the slogan for the Boğaziçi resistance after a police officer was filmed yelling at protesters to look down in an attempt to intimidate them.

But student-led protesters are refusing to back down, and instead are pointing a finger at those who should actually be hanging their heads in shame.

Erdoğan’s authoritarian grip

Turkey has been under a brutal crackdown on democratic rights since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government came into power nearly two decades ago.

Scenes of police brutality and attempts to silence opposition to government abuse of power is therefore not a rare occurrence in Turkey.

Since the failed coup attempt of 2016, thousands of academics, lawyers, journalists and civil servants have been arrested over usually unproven links to terrorism, and more than a dozen universities across the country have been shut down.

Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned his assault onto Boğaziçi academics and students.

Boğaziçi University is one of Turkey’s most prominent institutions and is a major scientific research institution in Istanbul, known for its open-minded atmosphere – a scene that has become a rarity in the country.

Erdoğan parachuted in founding AKP member Melih Bulu as rector of the university as part of his ongoing attempt to extend his conservative influence over Turkey’s social and cultural life. He is the first in the role to be appointed by powers outside of the University since the 1980 military coup.

Bulu was a candidate for AKP in the Istanbul (1st region) deputy leadership elections in 2015. But it’s not just Bulu’s close ties with Erdoğan and his party that makes him an unsuitable figure for the role as rector.

Much of his academic work has been found to have been plagiarised and is known for his abhorrent comments on the LGBT+ community. Students have said they do not accept Bulu’s appointment as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of the university.

And faculty also fear many negative consequences to his appointment, including the hiring of staff based on political affiliation, malicious investigations against critical academics, budget cuts to humanities and social sciences and the opening up of the university’s campus for private developers.

Crackdown on dissent

In the two months of protests at Boğaziçi, there have been over 200 arrests. Students have reported that special forces raided their homes in the middle of the night, usually over their tweets of support of the action.

There are also frequent reports of unlawful strip searches and abuse by the police of those held in custody.

The protesters have been labelled sexual deviants for their support of LGBT+ rights, with officials pointing to an exhibition held on campus as part of the protest.

Labelling any form of opposition as “terrorists” is Erdoğan’s go-to method of stifling dissent and bolstering his nationalist base. Boğaziçi students have not been exempt from this.

The leader of the nationalist party MHP, Devlet Bahceli, has also jumped on the chance to capitalise on the power grab by describing the students as “vandals, barbarians” and “venomous snakes” that need to be crushed before the poison spreads.

The protests continue

Following the detention of protesters, many demonstrations were held in solidarity in metropolitan cities such as the capital Ankara and Izmir.

And the images of the torture and ill-treatment of the protesters in the original demonstrations and the solidarity protests have spurred strong reactions from opposition MPs and organisations from many different political backgrounds.

But clearly, Boğaziçi protesters are in need of international solidarity.

In Britain, education unions, professional organisations and human rights campaigners have condemned the Turkish government’s attacks and expressed their support for the protesters.

Over 130 academics, lawyers and other professionals have signed a statement in solidarity with the resistance and have called on all heads of governments, higher education institutions, and UNESCO to call on the Turkish officials to respect the demands of the Boğaziçi faculty and students.

The statement can be signed here:

Solidarity with the People Of Turkey (SPOT) will be holding a day of action on Sunday, February 21, to bring forward messages of solidarity. The action will be streamed across the group’s social media from 1 PM.

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