Sunday, March 4, 2012

GIT Interview with TODI [Initiative for Solidarity with Students in Prison] member Ekim Arbatlı

GIT: 1) Can you tell us a little about the Initiative for Solidarity with Imprisoned Students?
When was it founded and who are the members?

EA: The Initiative for Solidarity with Imprisoned Students is essentially an independent group of people trying to help students detained and prosecuted on various political charges. Since the Initiative is not an‘organization’ in the classical sense of the word, it would be hard to give an exact date of foundation, but the idea took root within the past year given the increase in the number of students arrested. The Initiative is essentially a group open to everyone who is sensitive to the issue of imprisoned students in Turkey, regardless of political background or profession.

GIT: 2) Why did you and the other members of this Initiative consider such an initiative as necessary? What are your objectives?

EA: In the last couple of years, we have been witnessing an intensified effort by the Turkish state, and the governing Justice and Development Party, to silence all public opposition in Turkey. One of the main pillars of this suppression policy is the concept of “terror” and the arbitrary arrests under the guise of “fighting terrorism”. Many people from various segments of political opposition have been so far arrested on false allegations that they are associated with “terrorist” organizations. Currently, there are about 13,000 people imprisoned on various terror charges. This also includes around 600 high school and university students.

We believe that students are an especially vulnerable group, given that they are by definition a young, unemployed, and geographically dispersed group who lack the means of organization that may be available for other professions or segments of the society. Under these conditions, even practical issues such as access to proper legal advice can be problematic forthese young people once they are arrested. As such, we are trying to help the imprisoned students by acting as a watch group and publicizing their trials, aswell as by providing legal support when possible. We also follow the educational rights violations against students, including within university investigations and rights of imprisoned students to continue higher education.

On a more general note, we aim to help these imprisoned students by creating public awareness and solidarity both in the national and international arena through various campaigns. Our claims from the Turkish state and government are to stop arbitrary detentions of students, to improve the conditions of those imprisoned, to acknowledge their right to education, to shorten the trial periods and to release all students detained under the Anti-Terror Law.

We are still in the process of collecting accurate data onthe number of students arrested, including their names, the university and department they study, in which prison they are being held and the charges against them. We estimate that there are currently about 600 students under arrest, however we cannot provide an exact number. The data collection processis extremely difficult for a few reasons: First, the student arrests are geographically dispersed, including multiple cities around Turkey. Also, the police ‘operations’ are a continuing process. There are tens of students arrested every week, and some others are released in result of their trials. So, the list of imprisoned students is a constant task of updating throughout the country. Additionally, our task is further complicated by the fact that some students are permanently expelled from their universities once they are arrested. Once they lose their status, the authorities no longer acknowledge them as ‘imprisoned students’. So, the official figures estimate about 180 students currently imprisoned, whereas we believe this number to be much higher.

GIT: 3) As you are in the process of collecting data on the imprisoned students, it might not be possible to give a conclusive answer to this, but based on what you and the other members of the Initiative collected so far, what kind of a political landscape do you think the students' cases offer us in relation to rights for education, association and expression?

EA: I think that the students’ cases are one indication of a much larger political problem that we are facing. The AKP government has systematically attacked all segments of political opposition using legal and extra-legal means whenever deemed necessary. Ironically, the current “Anti-Terror Law” has terrorized the population and helped to marginalize opposition. The rights to association and expression cannot be exercised under these circumstances where people can be arrested and convicted for so much ascarrying a banner or shouting a slogan in a public rally. If journalists, academics and intellectuals feel the need to self-censor, then “Big Brother” is definitely watching us.

GIT: 4) What can you say about the situation of students in Turkey?

EA: We all know that the political repression against students in Turkey is not a new phenomenon. It would be hard to argue that there has ever been academic autonomy or freedom of expression in Turkish higher education. The existence of YOK alone is a clear indication of the state’s willingness to exert control over academic life. This affects both professors and students in various ways. Any attempt at having a democratic university is blocked from the very beginning. The students are most certainly not allowed a say in how the university affairs should be run.

GIT: 5) When Kemalists and the military had the power, there were ideological meddling with the education system and attempts at "disciplining and punishing" the students. How do you consider the current situation in that respect? What kinds of oppressions and violence do the students encounter now, and do you see a change in that respect between the past and the present?

EA: The youth is an important and highly active element of public dissent in any country. Historically, we see that Turkey has been no different. Unfortunately, the oppression and violence encountered by students does not change with the political ideology in power. It is a persistent state policy, especially targeted against Kurdish and generally left-wing/revolutionary student movements. In that respect, I don’t see much of a difference between the ‘Kemalist’ era and the new government. Surely, the targeted student profile can slightly change with conjuncture, such as the prominence of the headscarf issue in universities in 1990s. But aside from this temporary change of tactics, the students are still facing serious political repression from both the state and their universities.

GIT: 6) Would you like to tell us why and how you got into this Initiative?

EA: Students are political subjects like every other individual and they should be allowed to have their own voice both in the affairs of the university and in the general political arena. The current trend towards trying to silence this voice is extremely alarming. The recent wave of student arrests has only added to my concerns about the future of higher education in Turkey. I have also been personally affected by the process. My brother Deniz Kucukbumin, a history student at Istanbul University, was arrested in December 2011 under the auspices of the Anti-Terror Law, because he was working for a legal magazine. Deniz has been under arrest for three months now, and we are still waiting for the prosecutor to come up with official charges. Apparently, trying to publish a magazine can also make you a ‘terrorist’. Under these circumstances, I strongly believe that solidarity and collective action are crucial. There are many individuals in the same situation, and groups like the Initiative give us a collective voice.

GIT: 7) In your opinion, what is the profile of the students in prison? How are they different from before?

EA: Unfortunately, I lack the data to make a sound analysis on this point. However, as I have mentioned earlier, I can say that Kurdish and leftist students have always been disproportionately targeted by university administrations, the police and the government alike. Not much has changed on this front, the targeted student profile is still the same. Only now, I believe they are facing increased pressure.

GIT: 8) What do you think about the approach of the officials, especially of academic/administrators to the students?

EA: Unfortunately, many times we witness that the university administrations act together with the security establishment in exerting pressure on politically active students. The police presence is allowed within the universities and students face investigations for making press statements or participating in rallies. Of course, I would not want to generalize this attitude to all scholars, but I believe even some of those who are concerned are also self-censoring their critiques at this point. It is the professor’s responsibility to be concerned with the everyday problems of his students, their right to education and freedom of expression. We would definitely like to see a lot more support and solidarity from the Turkish academic community on the cause of arrested students.

As GIT - North America, we would like to thank Ekim Arbatlı for her time and generosity for speaking out. To visit TODI's website, please see:

To read an example of the hardships and violence politically active dissident students face that Ekim Arbatlı is talking about in her answer to our question #8, please see our translation from the Students Collective [Öğrenci Kollektifleri]: