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Turkey continues assault on academics

17 February 2017

Thousands more have lost their jobs, and an American physicist remains in jail.

Turkish academics

On 22 April 2016 in Istanbul, hundreds of people protested the arrest of four academics who had signed a letter urging peace with the Kurds. Credit: Ayşe Erzan

Seven months after a failed coup, the Turkish government has continued its relentless dismissal of civil servants, including physical scientists and other academics. More than 7300 academics have lost their jobs, according to the journalist-run website Turkey Purge. Some of those people are among the more than 90 000 detained since the 15 July 2016 coup attempt.

“People are getting fired for no reason whatsoever,” says Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames the coup attempt on the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETO), the government’s designation for a religious and social movement led by Fethullah Gülen, a former imam living in Pennsylvania. Gülen and his followers deny that accusation. Erdoğan also claims that the CIA is involved with FETO. As a result, Turkey’s treatment of Americans has deteriorated. The US State Department reports that Americans in the country have been deported and detained. Serkan Golge, a Houston-based NASA physicist and a citizen of both the US and Turkey, has been held without charges since late July.

Crackdown on higher ed

Turkey’s removal of academics began even before the coup attempt. In January 2016 more than 1100 Turkish academics signed an open letter to Erdoğan that called for him to make peace with the Kurds, a minority ethnic group whose homeland encompasses southeastern Turkey and parts of Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Since then, many of the letter’s signatories have lost their jobs and been investigated for engaging in terrorist activity.

Erdoğan has moved far more quickly since the failed coup, emboldened by a state of emergency decree that allows the government to detain suspects without charging them with a crime. In the days that followed, Erdoğan shut down 15 universities and more than 1000 private schools that he considered linked to Gülen; that purge cost the jobs not only of academics and schoolteachers but also of custodians, administrators, and food service workers. The reaction didn’t stop there: Turkish authorities have since dismissed thousands more people in the education sector, some of them Kurds and others accused—with little or no evidence—of sympathizing with Gülen. (See the article in Physics Today, December 2016, page 30.)

“Many schools are open, but they don’t have professors,” says Ebby Abramson, a researcher and editor at Endangered Scholars Worldwide in New York City, who visited Turkey in November. Ayşe Erzan, a retired Istanbul Technical University physicist who lives in Istanbul, says that entire departments and schools “have been almost completely emptied” at major institutions such as Ankara University.

The victims have included physicists, such as two researchers who work with CERN and the Turkish Accelerator Center Project. Ercan Piliçer has been dismissed from Uludağ University in Bursa, according to Argonne National Laboratory and Turkish Accelerator Center physicist Ercan Alp, and Ilhan Tapan has been suspended. Both scientists are “hard-working, dedicated physicists,” Alp says. “In my presence, they have never made any political comments.”

Losing a job and the salary that goes with it is hard enough, but Barkey says the government seems to have gone out of its way to inflict additional punishment. Fired civil servants are banned from working at any government institution for life. They lose accreditation if they earned their degree from a public Turkish university. They must forfeit access to the retirement fund they paid into during their tenure. And in many cases, the government restricts their international travel, preventing them from finding opportunities in other countries.

“There is widespread insecurity and fear, based on the dawning realization that no holds are barred,” says Erzan, who signed the January 2016 letter. She says the outlook for higher education and the country as a whole is “very bleak” unless Turkish voters come out strong against an upcoming referendum that calls for amending the constitution to give the president more power.

NASA physicist remains detained

Erdoğan’s swift action has spilled over to non-Turkish citizens. A 25 January travel warning from the US State Department cautions that “US citizens have been deported and/or detained and held without access to lawyers or family members under the state of emergency,” which was recently extended through 18 April.

The risk is especially high for those who have both Turkish and US passports, because the Turkish government does not recognize dual citizenship. American journalist Lindsey Snell says she was told in August by US consular representatives in Turkey that a “substantial number” of dual citizens had been detained in Turkey, and US officials “hadn’t gotten access to any of them.” Though the State Department did not reply to a request for comment, its travel notice warns that “delays or denial of consular access to US citizens detained or arrested by security forces, some of whom also possess Turkish citizenship, have become more common.”

Serkan Golge
Serkan Golge, from his LinkedIn profile

Snell got her information while sitting in a jail cell in Iskenderun in southern Turkey. She had escaped Syria after being kidnapped by an Al Qaeda affiliate, only to be arrested once she crossed the border into Turkey. (She was released in October, but her husband has not been allowed to leave Turkey since he arrived to help secure her freedom.) For one day her cell happened to be above that of Golge, whose detainment after visiting with family was first reported by Physics Today in August. He attended Gülen-sponsored Fatih University in Istanbul before moving to the US and eventually getting a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“He told me the police searched his home once and found nothing,” Snell says. “They returned for a second search and found a dollar bill.” American dollar bills reportedly serve as de facto identification badges for FETO members. Golge “told me he’d been held in a detention center and interrogated daily for the two weeks prior to moving to the prison.”

Golge has not been formally charged with a crime, says a source with knowledge of Golge’s situation who wishes to remain anonymous. (A Turkish diplomat who confirmed Golge’s detainment in August did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Although the State Department won’t officially confirm that Golge is detained, Abramson of Endangered Scholars Worldwide reports that US diplomats are “working very, very hard to get him released.” The source says Golge is scheduled to appear in court on 17 April, the day after Turkey’s nationwide referendum.

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