Sacked Turkish academics take protest to the streets

In the heart of Ankara, Turkish communications lecturer Sevilay Celenk gives a lecture to dozens of attentive students. But her lecture is not taking place on a campus, or even in a hall, but at a park, where the crowd has braced the bitter cold to hear her.

Celenk is one of about 5,000 Turkish academics who have been dismissed under a controversial state of emergency imposed after the failed July 15 coup. In a show of defiance across parks in Ankara, fired academics provide free lessons once every two weeks, lecturing on various topics including class and identity.

Since the coup attempt which tried to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over 100,000 people have been sacked or suspended from the public sector under emergency decrees. The university sector has been one of the hardest hit, with many lecturers accused of having links to US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara has blamed for the coup attempt and also to Kurdish militants.

Celenk said that when she was dismissed in one of the emergency decrees on 6 January, she felt anger at what she called a "frightening removal of any democratic, dissident, leftwing" sections of society.

"I felt a healthy anger, because we are faced with a truly unjust, illegal and unfounded dismissal," she told journalists after her latest outdoor lecture to an audience including former students, on the concept of resistance.

She says she has been targeted because she signed a petition along with over 2,000 other academics calling for peace in Turkey's restive southeast. Among the 330 academics dismissed earlier this month, 115 had signed the petition, local media reported.

Ibrahim Kaboglu, a prominent specialist on constitutional law, was also among the latest to be sacked.

"They took away our right to education, to schooling. It's a frightening process. It's like they are trying to pour concrete on our school," Ilkyaz Gencdal, a former student of Celenk's at Ankara University, told journalists after the 15-minute lecture. "Most of our classes have been left without a lecturer," Gencdal added.

Journalists have been told that no faculty at Ankara University will be shut down and that each department was finding replacements.

The government has insisted that any mistakes will be rectified and last month a decree was issued to set up a commission to assess appeals from people who claim they were wrongly suspended or fired. But the education ministry told journalists it would not comment on individual cases.

Nuriye Gulmen was suspended last year from her job as lecturer at Selcuk University in the central Turkish province of Konya and formally sacked in January. Since November, she has been standing every day by an Ankara statue of a woman that celebrates human rights. Gulmen has been detained 23 times by the police during her nearly 100-day protest.

"Until today, wherever there has been success for workers and the public – if they have won rights – they have won this on the street," Gulmen said.

Her next move will be to go on hunger strike until she can return to her work. She was accused of having ties to Gulen's group, claims which she strongly denies, adding that she has not been shown any evidence. Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, has denied orchestrating the coup bid.

Gulmen began her protest alone but she is now joined by other fired workers including Acun Karadag, a middle school teacher who said her doctor believed her dismissal caused heart problems. But Gulmen, who has previously been accused of links to a Marxist militant group but denies links to other illegal organisations, said "there was no other path" but street protests.

"We are not rich people. Our families educated us with difficulty," Gulmen said, later adding she was living on people's sofas.

Gulmen and many other dismissed teachers and lecturers are members of the leading leftwing education union, Egitim-Sen, whose president, Kamuran Karaca, said nearly 1,300 people it represents had been sacked.

Another 11,500 members were suspended last year, but Karaca said all but around 70 people had been returned to their posts.

He denied that his secular union – which is financially supporting its sacked members – had any militant or Gulen links. Karaca said the union would apply to the new commission to appeal the dismissals.

But Andrew Gardner, a researcher on Turkey at Amnesty International, said he was sceptical about the commission's ability – or desire – to examine cases quickly.

"Preventing people from going to the European Court of Human Rights seems to be the primary objective," he said.    (AFP)

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