Turkish authorities have arrested five students over an LGBTQ-themed art work displayed at a protest exhibition at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.
The work depicted a mythical half-woman half-snake creature from Turkish folklore (known as a Shahmaran) at the centre of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, the Kaaba.
The anonymous work was submitted via an open-call run by the student art collective BOUN Sanat Direnisi. The group said in a social media post that they timed the exhibition to coincide with mass demonstrations taking place on campus to protest against the government’s appointment of the university’s new rector, Melih Bulu.
Here’s our statement video as Boğaziçi students regarding the latest misunderstandings about the exhibition, which was followed by the arrests of two of our friends. We demand our friends to be freed, and the appointed rector to leave his position. pic.twitter.com/oSKiVY54WU— Resist Bogazici (@resistBU) January 31, 2021
Critics say Bulu was appointed not on account of his academic track record, but due to his strong links to Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On Friday, Turkey’s interior minister Suleyman Soylu called the four arrested students “perverts who committed disrespect” towards the Kaaba, while the Istanbul Governor’s Office called the work an “ugly attack” that “mocked religious beliefs”.
“The goal behind these arrests is the weakening and silencing of our rightful protests,” said a student in response to the arrests in a video posted to social media.
The arrests have inflamed protests across the country and fuelled on-campus demonstrations this week, leading to the arrests of dozens more, according to videos posted on Twitter.
Bogazici University, one of Istanbul’s most prestigious schools famous for its liberal arts culture, has been a thorn in the side of President Erdogan and his religiously conservative base for years.
Since 2016, after a failed coup came close to toppling the president, Erdogan has arrested thousands of academics, artists and students.
Late last year, Turkish authorities detained Cihan Erdal, a Canadian permanent resident and PhD student at Carelton University in Ottawa. Erdal was arrested in Istanbul for signing an open letter in 2014, which called on the government to help the Kurdish town of Kobani, in Syria, against Isis attacks.
Erdal is concerned that his sexual orientation in addition to his support for the Kurdish minority could make him a target in prison. According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey demonstrates a “systematic basis” and a “repressive approach” on LGBTQ rights, which experts warn could result in increasingly hostile attitudes towards LGTBQ art and activism across the country.
Members of the European Parliament have passeda resolution condemning the Turkish government’s ongoing crackdown on opposition members, calling for the release of all political prisoners–some of whom have been unjustly imprisoned for years–and highlighting the case of Cihan Erdal, jailed member of CUPE 4600 (Local 4600 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees).
Cihan is a queer youth activist, a PhD student and a member of CUPE 4600 at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. On September 25, 2020 he was swept up in a mass arrest of politicians, activists, and academics in Istanbul. He is a Canadian permanent resident, who was in Turkey visiting family and conducting fieldwork for his doctorate. Cihan was indicted, along with more than 100 other prisoners, in early January. The charges are based on two social media posts that Cihan shared six years ago, from People’s Democratic Party of Turkey, the third largest political party in the country. His first court appearance is not until April 26.
Tomorrow (Thursday, 21 January), MEPs will debate and vote on an urgency resolution on the human rights situation in Turkey, notably the case of Selahattin Demirtaş and other prisoners of conscience, and urge for their immediate release. One of the less known prisoners of conscience is Cihan Erdal, a member of the youth wing of Turkey’s Green Left Party. Cihan was detained on 25 September 2020 while visiting his family in Turkey. On 7 January 2021, he was indicted together with more than 100 defendants, including Selahattin Demirtaş, as part of the so called “Kobane case”. The indictment calls for 38 counts of life sentences without parole and the evidence provided in Cihan Erdal’s case is limited to merely two “retweets” of HDP’s official statements from October 2014.
Ska Keller MEP, President of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, comments:
“Cihan Erdal is a peaceful human rights activist and an academic. It is beyond absurdity that he is facing an indictment calling for 38 counts of aggravated life sentence based on the evidence of two tweets, while Cihan was only trying to make Turkey a better place. We ask for his immediate release and call for an end to this travesty of justice.
“We are also extremely concerned about the targeted attacks on the youth wings of political parties, as well as the brutal crackdown on peaceful student protests legitimately defending academic freedom. We strongly condemn this violence and wish to express our solidarity with those peaceful protesters.”
Sergey Lagodinsky MEP, Chair of the EU-Turkey delegation of the European Parliament, comments:
“The Turkish authorities must start living up to their own commitments and to international human rights standards. We ask Turkey to follow the European Court of Human Rights orders to immediately release Demirtaş and Kavala, as well as all other political prisoners, including Cihan Erdal.
“Political prosecution in Turkey and harassment of its students, human rights defenders, activists, academics, journalists and opposition politicians must stop. Any normalisation of official EU-Turkey relations and any move on the positive agenda as offered by the European Council is fully dependent on a tangible improvement of the civil and human rights situation and rule of law in Turkey. Releasing political prisoners from Turkish prisons would be a good start.”
In October 2014, protesters in dozens of cities and towns in Turkey tried to pressure the government into acting against Islamic State militants in Kobani, a Kurdish town in Syria. Police and demonstrators clashed violently. Among those thought to be involved were opposition political parties such as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Six years later, on Sept. 25, 2020, Carleton University PhD student and Canadian permanent resident Cihan Erdal was arrested in Turkey, along with 81 others, for his involvement in HDP at the time of the 2014 violence.
With the actual charges against him still unclear three months later, supporters in Canada are pushing to get him freed.
Erdal’s partner, Omer Ongun, close friends and family have set up a website campaigning for his release, and a letter-writing event took place Dec. 20 to send letters of love and support to Erdal in his Turkish jail cell.
Carleton University was one of the first institutions to denounce Erdal’s arrest and demand his immediate release. Since then, petitions have started, such as one at Change.org, and more than 40 organizations, including the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Association (OCUFA) and Amnesty International, have condemned his arrest and demanded his release. However, the Canadian government has said little about the case.
According to Ongun, he and Erdal travelled to Turkey in July to visit Erdal’s family. Erdal then stayed to work on his thesis, which centred on the experiences of young activists, with a specific focus on the cities of Athens, Istanbul and Paris. Ongun said neither of them felt at risk during their travels.
“We felt very secure and safe. We didn’t necessarily think about any risks, because, you know, he had nothing right, like no calls from the police, nothing right? He never thought of any risks.”
Ongun described Erdal as a kind, non-violent person and said his partner would never condone violence. “He really showed up as this gentle soul, wouldn’t hurt anyone, never assertive or opinionated, always open to differences, different people, extremely empathetic, very romantic I should say, and very emotional at times.”
He also said Erdal was a member of the HDP at the time of the 2014 protests but was not very involved in the party. The Turkish government cracked down on the party with unusual severity, said Ongun, an indication of the country’s increasingly authoritarian leadership.
Abram Lutes, vice-president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 4600 (CUPE 4600), which represents Carleton University’s teaching assistants, said the union has been involved in pushing for Erdal’s freedom because Erdal was a TA.
“He was held in solitary until his hearing, went back in solitary for a few days but they finally moved him to a portion of the prison, where he is being held. He has a roommate basically, like a cellmate, he is allowed to receive mail and he does get some exercise and things like that.”
Here’s how Turkey stacks up in terms of political freedoms and civil rights in relation to its close geographic neighbours, according to Freedom House. In comparison, Canada scores 40 on political rights, and 58 on civil liberties. Turkey is ranked, overall, as “not free.”
Freedom House is an American organization that researches and reports on issues related to political rights, civil liberties, and democracy. It scores countries on metrics such as how they are governed; the conditions of political rights and civil liberties in that area; whether or not the territory’s boundaries are stable enough to allow assessment; if it can be expected to remain stable in the foreseeable future; and if the territory is large or politically significant. Turkey, the organization concluded, was “not free,” and was ranked overall in the bottom one-third of 100 countries studied.
According to Amnesty International’s report on Turkey and human rights, Turkey has been cracking down on real and perceived dissent since 2019, even after the end of a state of emergency. Criminal prosecutions and investigations have taken place under anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent even when there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
According to Amnesty, journalists, human rights activists, scholars and politicians have been affected by the crackdown. There have also been credible allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees.
Blair Rutherford, chair of Carleton University’s anthropology and sociology department, where Erdal was doing his studies, said there are many things the community can do to help.
“Continue to send notes and emails to your MPs to make sure that they are aware. It doesn’t matter if they are a Liberal MP, Conservative, NDP, Green, Bloc, the pressure right now needs to be placed on the Canadian government to make sure they put the pressure on the Turkish government.”
Lutes said that, while it is hard to help people who are not Canadian citizens, it is important that Canada set a precedent of helping a permanent resident such as Erdal in the context of human rights violations.
Global Affairs Canada spokesman Jason Kung said in an email that the department “is aware of the detention of a Canadian permanent resident in Turkey. Canada has raised concerns with Turkish authorities and continues to monitor this case closely.” Kung said the department had “nothing further to add” in response to Capital Current’s questions.
Lutes said he wished the federal government were more transparent about what it is doing to help Erdal regain his freedom.
When the government does not provide any information on it is doing other than “monitoring the situation,” Lutes said, it usually means the government is not doing much.
Find more information about the letter-writing event to help Erdal here.