European Union has condemned the arrest of two students in Turkey over a poster promoting LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) viewpoints, the detention of hundreds of students who protested against the arrests and the use of anti-LGBT hate speech by politicians and officials.
A spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, in a statement, called the detention of student demonstrators and a decision by authorities to ban rallies around Istanbul’s elite Bogazici University “a deeply worrying development”.
In addition, 3,317 academics, thinkers and writers from around the world have released a joint statement condemning the actions against the Bogazici University students and calling on the rector who was controversially appointed by the Turkish president without an election to resign.
“We call on Turkey to respect its national and international obligations and to release those arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly over the last weeks,” the statement said.
More than 300 students and their supporters were reportedly detained in Istanbul and the capital Ankara in increasingly violent and politically charged altercations with the police this week.
It began when students from Bogazici University were arrested on 1 February over the display of a poster with LGBT rainbow symbols shown alongside an image of the Kaaba in Mecca.
The arrest triggered a wave of protests at the university which resulted in the detention of 159 students, according to a report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an advocacy group set up by Turkish journalists in exile which monitors developments in Turkey.
Protests later spread to other cities.
According to a BBC report in Turkish, the police raided the Bogazici University LGBT+ student club and the Fine Arts Club and seized rainbow flags, posters and banners.
Dozens of students demonstrated against the police action and the arrests, describing them as homophobic and discriminatory.
The protests were supported by a social media campaign using the hashtag Bogazici LGBT scandal (#BogaziciLgbtRezaleti).
Meanwhile, conservative politicians and top government officials called for the immediate prosecution of the students who created the poster.
Turkey is a secular republic but its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supported by his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is seeking to change the constitution and has been pushing to give prominence to more traditional conservative Muslim values.
In the poster a mythical half-woman and half-snake has been placed over the Kaaba along with flags of LGBT people and text lower down describes it a critique of traditional gender roles.
Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu depicted the students as “perverts” on Twitter, saying they were “thankfully detained”. But the tweet has been flagged by Twitter as violating its rules on hateful conduct.
Mil-Diyanet Sen, a union for employees of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, issued a statement which has been posted on Twitter saying they had called on the Interior Ministry to close all LGBT associations and issue a complete ban on their activities.
Ibrahim Kalin, President Erdogan’s spokesperson, said on Twitter that “neither freedom of expression nor the right to protest” could defend the poster, adding that the act of creating it would receive “the punishment it deserves before the law”.
More students were detained on 2 February as they tried to hold a press conference at the university about the arrest of the two students. Others were arrested on their way to join the protests.
Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said via Twitter that the students were detained because they had occupied the building where the rector’s office is located. He added that the occupation came after the controversial new rector, Melih Bulu, issued a statement saying the LGBT+ student club had been closed.
“The university administration has rightfully taken the necessary steps against those trying to trample our core values,” he said in a tweet.
Students hospitalised after ‘police beating’
According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom report, two of the students detained on 1 February were reportedly hospitalised, one of them with a broken jaw, and the other with concussion after being beaten by police in custody.
Video footage of state security personnel armed with rifles on the roofs of buildings around the university have been circulated on Twitter.
Bogazici University had already become a focal point for opposition to President Erdogan’s impingements on the autonomy of universities and civic organisations.
The statement by international academics and writers – including Judith Butler, the United States philosopher and gender theorist, and Noam Chomksy, the US linguist and philosopher – noted that on 1 January 2021, Erdogan used an emergency decree from 2016 (KHK 676) to appoint Professor Melih Bulu, a loyal member of the ruling party, as rector of Bogazici University.
Bulu is not a member of the Bogazici University faculty and was appointed without an election. He was the first rector chosen from outside a university since a military coup in Turkey in 1980, according to Bogazici faculty members, and according to Turkish media reports, he had previously applied to be an election candidate for Erdogan’s party in 2015 and led a district branch of the AKP in Istanbul.
“This attempt by President Erdogan to bring Bogazici University under his control has sparked widespread faculty and student protest,” the academics said in their statement.
“The government’s response has been brutal. Erdogan has called the students ‘terrorists’ and LGBTI+ students in particular have been singled out for harassment. The police have conducted home raids with guns drawn, detained and strip-searched protesters, and engaged in torture.
“We the undersigned condemn these actions and stand in solidarity with the students and faculty of Bogazici University.
“We call upon Professor Bulu to decline the position and we call upon the Turkish government to release any students still in custody, withdraw all charges, and respect academic freedom and university autonomy,” the statement said.
The Bogazici University protests have been continuing for a month. Students and some members of staff have been protesting against Bulu’s appointment without an election.
Opponents said Bulu was unqualified for the job and that a state-appointed rector harmed the independence of the university.