Arrests of Academics in Turkey Prompt Protests

April 19, 2009

The arrest of several high-profile academics as part of an investigation into an alleged right-wing conspiracy in Turkey prompted thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets of Ankara, the Turkish capital, yesterday. The Associated Press reported that “more than 5,000 people, including students and university teachers in academic robes,” descended up on the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, “to protest the arrests of university professors and other secularists accused of involvement in an alleged plot to topple the Islamic-rooted government.”

The government investigation into the supposed plot by the secular right-wing group, known as Ergenekon, began in June 2007, the AP reported. Investigators say the group is seeking to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is rooted in political Islam. The government has attempted to introduce policies, such as allowing observant Muslim women to wear head scarves at universities, that staunch secularists view as an assault on the Turkish republic’s secular identity.

As a result of the widening Ergenekon investigation, “nearly 150 people, including retired senior military officers, lawyers, and academics, are on trial,” Reuters reported.

On Friday an Istanbul court charged eight more suspects, including Mehmet Haberal, the rector and owner of Ankara’s Baskent University, and three other former university rectors, according to Hürriyet, a Turkish newspaper. Scores of academics have been questioned in connection with the investigation, the newspaper reported, and the case “has divided Turkey,” with many people believing the investigation “has turned into a witchhunt targeting government critics.” —Aisha Labi