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In Latest Crackdown, Turkish Government Targets Anti-war University Students

Fear spreads across campuses as students detained for demonstrating against Ankara’s military intervention in Syria

Nine university students on Tuesday were jailed in Istanbul pending trial on the charge of spreading terrorist propaganda after taking part in an anti-war protest, Turkey’s state news agency reported, in what critics argue is the latest example of the government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Another six students were released pending trial.

Last month, police detained students at Bogazici University during a demonstration against Turkey’s offensive in Syria. Additional youths were arrested in follow-raids on campus.

Outside the court building on Tuesday evening, family and friends gathered awaiting news, including Cumhur Atay, whose 23-year-old son Agah, was in court.

Cumur said his son—who only arrived at the rally as it was being dispersed—was arrested by police on March 26 while attending class.

“We are hoping they will release him but I am hoping they will release all of them…because they are not guilty, what they did was just freedom of expression,” Cumhur stressed to The Media Line.

He has not been told what charges, if any, were filed against his son nor has he heard from Agah since his detention, although the family lawyer has visited him in prison almost every day.

“[The lawyer] said they’re fine.… I don’t know how fine they can be,” Cumhur explained.

Pointing to his wife standing next to him, he added, “you can see his mother. She’s desperate. She’s very, very [exhausted], just like I am… For the last eight days at home, it’s [been] very difficult.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had called for an investigation into the protests at Bogazici, considered one of Turkey’s top universities. “We will find these terrorist students by means of footage and will do what is necessary. We won’t give these terrorist, communist youths the right to study at these universities,” he recently asserted.

Two months ago, Turkey launched an offensive in the northern Syrian province of Afrin to drive out Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey aimed at achieving independence.

Hurriyet Daily News reported that the initial anti-war protest on campus erupted in response to a group of students handing out sweets to “commemorate fallen soldiers.”

However, Tilbe Akan, 23, contends that the candy was, by contrast, being passed around to celebrate the Turkish military’s entrance into the center of Afrin city. Otherwise, she noted, students would have honored the dead.

Akan herself was detained during a follow-up protest against the imprisonment of students. She said police drove her and six others around for hours before they were let go.

“We’ll show them we’re not silenced by this violence,” Akan asserted in reference to her plan to sue authorities.

She also revealed that students involved in the original anti-war protest are fearful police will eventually come for them. “Some friends are definitely scared because they were in [the] demonstration and they don’t know what to do about it.”

Ozgur Benol, 26, was detained alongside Akan. He attended the follow-up protest to show support for his peers in jail.

“It’s very important to let people know [they’re] not alone.”

Benol and Tilbe have been charged with resisting police and holding a demonstration without a permit, although they have not yet been assigned court dates.

Critics argue Erdogan used a failed coup in 2016 to crackdown on dissenters, while the Turkish president argues the moves are needed to uphold security.

Since the attempted putsch, over 50,000 people have been jailed and another 150,000 suspended from their jobs or dismissed, including professors, police officers and judges.

About 160 journalists have been placed behind bars, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Association.

Hundreds more who have expressed opposition to Turkey’s military campaign in Syria have been detained. In January, 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association were arrested after the organization criticized the offensive.

The European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, Kati Piri, wrote on Twitter, “Anti-war protesters labeled ‘terrorists’ by President Erdogan. Critical thinking dangerous endeavor in ‘new Turkey.’”

Constanze Letsch, a consultant on Turkey for Human Rights Watch said the detention of students is the latest example of intolerance to government opposition in the country. “[In] a functioning democracy, you need to be able to express criticism of government policies,” she concluded.