Thousands of Turkish scientists have faced restrictions on their human rights and scientific freedoms since the military coup in July 2016, through closures of institutions, job dismissals, arrests, detainment, prosecution and travel restrictions.
Turkey’s State of Emergency was lifted in July 2018. However, Turkish counter-terrorist laws continue to give the government wide-ranging ability to dismiss, detain, prosecute and restrict the movement of public sector employees, including academics.
Scientists have been targeted based on association with public institutions, for alleged affiliations with certain political or social groups, and for signing petitions promoting human rights and academic freedom. For example, many academics and researchers have been detained or received sentences for spreading “terrorist propaganda”, “inciting people to hatred, violence and breaking the law,” and “insulting Turkish institutions and the Turkish Republic”, by signing an Academics for Peace petition, or for participating in public events related to human rights issues in Turkey.
Among these is Professor Tuna Altinel, a leading mathematician at University Lyon 1 in France. Professor Altinel was a signatory of the Academics for Peace petition, and subsequently faced trial for “propagandizing for a terrorist organization”. He returned to France following his hearing in February 2019, but later returned to Istanbul to visit family, when his passport was confiscated. Professor Altinel was then arrested and incarcerated when he enquired about the status of his passport, and was reportedly charged again with “propagandizing for a terrorist organization” on allegations of participating in the screening of a documentary titled “Djizré, histoire d’un massacre” (“Cizre, history of a massacre”) in Lyon earlier that year. He was acquitted of these charges in January 2020, but his passport has not yet been returned. As such, he is unable to resume his teaching and research activities in France.
The International Science Council stands for the free and responsible practice of science, and promotes the freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists. Such restrictions on scientific freedom are counterproductive in a modern society where the creation, sharing and use of scientific knowledge is fundamental to human and environmental wellbeing. The ongoing actions by Turkey’s government pose serious risks to individual researchers, but they also hamper scientific progress, innovation, and Turkey’s standing in the global scientific community, which has been unfortunately dented since July 2016. Scientific capability and human capital take many years to accumulate, but can be lost very quickly, and are difficult to replace.
Restrictions on scientific freedom can lead to a major loss of institutional knowledge when positions are disestablished, and may encourage scientists to move to other countries that provide a more conducive environment for their work. This in turn limits the ability of Turkey to engage in exchanges of knowledge with other parts of the world that are essential to scientific progress and socio-economic development, and contribute to the brain-drain that Turkey has experienced. Restrictions on Turkish scientists have also had an impact on academic institutions around the world where scientists are unable to return to their country of employment, as in the case of Professor Altinel.
Against this worrying trend, it is therefore particularly relevant that the ISC, as the global voice for science, lends its strongest support to efforts to defend and secure fundamental scientific freedoms in Turkey.