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70.000 students imprisoned in Turkey

‘Yılanın başı küçükken ezilmeli’*

What is often at the center of media attention are the realities academics from Turkey are suffering from, but what about the students?

Demonstration on 27th of April 2018 at the Brandenburger Tor (Berlin) to protest against the oppression of Alevi people and students by the Turkish state and the AKP government. The protest reacted to a repeated wave of arrests at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul

Article for read.me, GEW student newspaper, winter semester 2018/19

Tebessüm Yılmaz elaborates on how important an awareness of the precarious conditions of students in Turkey is.

read.me: In January 2016, Academics for Peace initiated the petition ‘We will not be a party to this crime!’, to condemn Turkey’s policies of expulsion and its war against the Kurdish population. This in turn, put academics in Turkey once again in the spotlight of state repressions. The declaration of the state of emergency, which followed after the attempted Coup d’état in July 2016, ended now after two controversial years. As a consequence, academics and students find themselves left with having experienced two years of severe repressions and powerful resistances. How do you experience and/or judge the current atmosphere as well as the conditions of the oppositional forces in Turkey?

Yılmaz: Even though the state of emergency has been formally abolished, it actually is not. The authorities that were given to the governors and administrative positions show us, that the repressions now continue through the hands of law. Nevertheless, the resisting and oppositional forces keep on going. They managed to pull some quite serious campaigns that were really successful regarding the elections in June 2018. But in the end, the conditions have not changed after the end of the state of emergency. Many Members of Parliament are still imprisoned. If we talk about powerful resistance, I have to mention the women’s and LGBT (LGBTI stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex [-people]) movements in Turkey, which are super powerful. During and even before the state of emergency, women’s and LGBTI groups were the only ones on the streets, demonstrating and organizing campaigns in solidarity with Kurdistan.

read.me: The German Education Union (GEW) showed their support and attempted to raise awareness within German Academia for the situation of and claims made by the peace-petitionists. Despite their efforts, there is a lack of knowledge about the experiences of (doctoral) students, who, in overall, represent a big part (838 of 2212 initial signatories) of the peace-petitionists.
In what way do the situations of students and their visibility differ from their higher-ranked colleagues (especially professors)? What effect does this have on students?

Yılmaz: On the one hand the lack of visibility already started within the Academics for Peace in Turkey. From the beginning, the awareness for power dynamics, the experiences and violations that we have been facing, were somehow neglected. Home invasions or attacks for example started with more established academics. But simultaneously, there was no knowledge about how many students signed the petition and who was facing investigations inside the universities or within police investigations. On the other hand, these ‘in-visibilities’ also made our arrival in German academia more difficult, since almost all the scholarships are for academics while doctoral and graduate students are not considered as such.

read.me: The reports on the mass imprisonments in Turkey reveal similarly that they are mostly about lawyers, journalists, politicians and academics, although current sources estimate up to 70.000 (doctoral, bachelor, master and high school) students in prison. This means that almost 1/3 of the entire prison population in Turkey are students.
As an active member of TÖDA (Tutuklu Öğrencilerle Dayanışma Ağı), the solidarity network for imprisoned students, founded in 2015 that continues the long-standing work of TÖDI (Tutuklu Öğrencilerle Dayanışma Inisiyatifi), can you give an account on the alleged crimes and laws used by the Turkish state to incarcerate these masses of students?

Yılmaz: Students face mostly similar accusations as academics, the most prominent are ‘being a member of a terrorist organization’ or ‘spreading terrorist propaganda’. But handing out flyers on a university campus or partaking in a demonstration can be a reason for spending several years in prison without seeing a judge. One of the worst developments are the new regulations of the prison conditions. Students who are in prison are no longer allowed to take their exams. Every right and chance to graduate some day is taken from them.

read.me: What kind of threat do you think the students constitute to the status quo in Turkey?

Yılmaz: There is this Turkish saying ‘Yılanın başı küçükken ezilmeli’ (‘smash a snake’s head while it’s small’). That’s basically the tendency of the Turkish state, not just since the AKP government is in office. Similar repressive laws and regulations have been in place since the 1960s because of really violent ‘left vs. right’ wing fights and confrontations. Why they are protecting right and conservative groups and try to smash down the left speaks for itself, I think. In addition to this, the government always wants to stop or demolish the Kurdish movement or sympathizers of the Kurdish movement.

read.me: Do you see an urge for transnational solidarity between students in Germany and Turkey? If so, what actions are needed?

Yılmaz: Definitely. Whenever I’m asked about this, everyone is shocked, because neither here nor in Turkey there is a public discussion or awareness.  Student unions and students in the opposition in Germany have to step up and attempt a dialogue. Everybody has different resources to stand in solidarity. We need to build a network that goes beyond hierarchical solidarity or charity acts, something more horizontal.
It can only start with the students, but of course it should always go beyond that. While raising an awareness we will hopefully cause change together.

Tebessüm Yılmaz is a feminist activist and political scientist based in Germany. She is currently recommencing her doctoral studies at the Department of Diversity and Social Conflict at Humboldt University of Berlin. Her research interests include Kurdish studies, critical gender studies, memory studies and visual sociology. 

Yilmaz has been an active member of Academics for Peace- Turkey, Wissenschaftlerinnen für den Frieden – Deutschland e.V. , Academics with no Campuses, as well as the Women's Initiative for Peace and the Solidarity Network for Detained Students (TÖDA)

The interview was conducted by Bilge Cömert. She is currently studying Political Science and Sociology at Goethe University Frankfurt and works as a student assistant at the headquarters of the German Education Union.