Nearly six years ago, Turkey was rocked by the alleged coup d’état attempt on the 15th of July 2016. A day after the attempt, the Turkish government swiftly established a state of emergency and passed emergency executive decrees Nos. 667-676 that mainly censored media outlets and journalists,[i] but then extended its reach to thousands of civil servants, police officers, armed forces personnel, University professors and staff by name in the annexes of Decree 679 on 6th January 2017.[ii] This resulted in a total of more than 150,000 people losing their jobs, access to social services, their freedom of movement being restricted, their lives tarnished by the government’s accusation that they were tied to the coup allegedly caused by Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish scholar-cleric who has been living in self-exile in the U.S. since 1999 and who has persistently denied the charge coming from Ankara.[iii]
One such person affected in the aftermath of these events is Nuriye Gülmen, a former Turkish professor of comparative literature at Selçuk University in 2012 and who, prior to the coup attempt, was appointed as a research assistant to Eskişehir Osmangazi University in 2015.[iv] Gülmen is not only an academic but also has a history of activism and legal battles against the abuse of institutions in Turkey due to a political lawsuit after her appointment and saw her detained for 109 days, delaying her studies and reinstatement at Eskişehir.[v] The day she was appointed back into her research position was the day of the coup attempt, which led to her suspension from Eskişehir the following day. This was due to the new decrees which found her accused, like thousands with her, of being a member of FETO, the so-called organization of supporters of the exiled Gulen that Erdogan and his government accused of being a terrorist organization. This triggered the next phase of her activist history and since the 9th of November 2016, wherein she had protested against her suspension, eventual dismissal, and persistently requested her job at Eskişehir back every day in front of the Human Rights Monument located in Yüksel Street, Ankara, where the Council of Higher Education is based and who must answer to her demands.[vi] Gülmen explains that this is a ‘revolutionary tradition’ determined in garnering attention and getting what you want, demanding in this case an end to the state of emergency, allowing the revolutionary democratic public labourers that were dismissed and fired to return to their jobs, start assurance for the 13,000 OYP research assistants, and requesting job security for all education and science workers.[vii] Gülmen started her protest largely on her own, being arrested for a total of 26 times which can be attributed to the increasing attention by foreign and domestic spectators observing her actions, reading her experience on her online WordPress blog, and ultimately being named by CNN as one of the eight outstanding women of 2016 by her 50th day of protest.[viii]
This attention was majorly increased after the 6th January Decree of 2017 when Gülmen was dismissed from Eskişehir, resulting in her shifting her strategy to the next gear by engaging in a hunger strike on the 9th of March, 2017. Gülmen, whilst in police custody alongside primary teacher Semih Özakça, he women texperienced the backlash of the Emergency Decrees.[ix] The rationale behind the strike was that verbal protests tend to be the norm in the activist toolkit, which more often than not don’t garner enough attention from authorities, but a hunger strike is a strong action that positions actors engaging in it with the serious health risks at stake, similarly to what Gülmen explains as ‘necessary to take the resistance to the next level’ and to ‘really pressure them to take action’.[x] In reaction to the hunger strike, an indictment was filed on the 2nd of May, 2017, to the 19th Heavy Penal Court in Ankara accusing both Gülmen and Özakça of being members of and involved in the illicit activities of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), in turn leading to their detention at Sincan Prison in Ankara by 23rd May, 2017.[xi] The court found the pair guilty because ‘if they were not remanded, they would damage the course of justice’, a line that seems contradictory given the lack of evidence in the charges filed and when both teachers remain vigilant in denying any involvement with DHKP-C to the point that their lawyer even publicised their criminal records as proof that no such involvement exists and countered the efforts by Minister for the Interior Suleyman Soylu and his ministry’s research and studies centre to try and solidify the charges.[xii]
It was feared that both teachers would face further human rights violations, since prison guards and doctors are legally allowed to intervene and end a hunger strike without the consent of the teachers. They can also intervene when they are unconscious, as stated under Article 82 of the Law on the Execution of Judgement No. 5275, which as a result would violate freedom of expression and is likely to result in cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.[xiii] During a visit by the President of the Ankara Bar Association, Hakan Canduran, and some of his colleagues, Gülmen expressed the dire situation in which she and Özakça have found themselves in, telling Canduran that she sees ‘justice is fading just like [her] muscles’ while being unable to hold her neck up without assistance, move her arms or hold a pen. In turn, we saw Canduran call upon the government to end to the hunger strike through societal reconciliation and negotiate with those unjustly impacted by the emergency decrees.[xiv] Throughout mid-2017, the duo filed in the Constitutional Court and also to the European Court of Human Rights to end their detention on the grounds that their hunger strike had by then posed evident health risks, yet both Courts rejected their application because these risks were not life threatening and the proper medical measures were in place to assist them if that became the case.[xv]
Gülmen’s health eventually did become serious and by 26th September, 2017, had warranted her transfer to an inmate cell in Numune Hospital. She was then released from her detention by 1st December, when the 19th Heavy Penal Court sentenced her to 6 years and 3 months in prison, however allowing for her release under judicial control.[xvi] Despite their release, Gülmen and Özakça kept up their protest in front of the Human Rights Monument, but eventually had to end their hunger strike on the 26th of January, 2018, following the rejection of a government commission tapped to review their cases, and instead sought to focus their efforts within the domestic judicial system going forwards, emphasising that their resistance had not ended and would continue.[xvii] After 324 days of engaging in their hunger strike, Gülmen had lost a significant amount of her original weight, dropping from 59 kilograms to 33.8 kilograms, this showing the extent of how serious her efforts were in retaining her job and respect for her rights.[xviii]
The next time Gülmen was in the limelight was when she was once again arrested on 11th August, 2020, during a police raid on the Istanbul’s Idil Culture Centre on the 5th of August, a centre that is run by the leftist folk band Grup Yurum, the reasons for which remain unexplained.[xix] Later that year, Gülmen and other colleagues of hers were expelled from the Education and Science Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen) due their image as ‘Yüksel Resistanceists’ or resistance fighters in the public eye.[xx] The last development was as recent as 4th November, 2021, when the pair had filed to the Constitutional Court which later rejected their claims that the 2nd May, 2017, indictment used the same evidence as an earlier investigation on 14th March, 2017, which led to their arrest but was subsequently dismissed and were released under judicial control, indicating that the 2nd May indictment and detention on 23rd May, 2017, violated their rights to liberty and security, further stating that the judicial authorities deciding the case were neither impartial nor independent.[xxi] The Court dismissed their case because Gülmen and Özakça’s claims lacked concrete evidence, that their violated rights was unacceptable to put forward, and that they had not exhausted all domestic means before filing their claims.[xxii]
What is sorely evident from the bold activism of Nuriye Gülmen is that since 2016, the government of Turkey has unjustly targeted hundreds of thousands of individuals based on arguments that do not hold water, and those who have been most affected and decide to oppose the government’s actions will face significant repression through detention and legal intimidation. Broken Chalk calls upon the Turkish Government and proper authorities to seriously reconsider its actions which have left thousands without job security or the option to leave the country and find employment abroad. Broken Chalk especially calls for the reinstatement of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, amongst many others, to their respective job positions in the sphere of education, their removal from which has surely reduced the access and quality of education in Turkey.
Written by Karl Baldacchino
Edited by Erika Grimes
[i] Grabenwarter, C. et al. (2017) ‘Draft Opinion on the Measures Provided in the Recent Emergency Decree Laws with Respect to Freedom of the Media’. European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission). Available online from: https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL(2017)006-e [Accessed on 08/03/2022], pp. 3-4.
[ii] Decree-Law No. 679 (6th January 2017) ‘Measures Regarding Public Personnel’. Available online from: https://insanhaklarimerkezi.bilgi.edu.tr/media/uploads/2017/02/09/KHK_679_ENG.pdf [Accessed 08/03/2022], p. 1.
[iii] Jones, T. (2018) ‘Two Turkish Teachers End Almost 11-Month Hunger Strike’. DW. Available online from: https://www.dw.com/en/two-turkish-teachers-end-almost-11-month-hunger-strike/a-42318478 [Accessed 08/03/2022]; Işık, A. (2017) ‘In Turkey, Hope for ‘Justice is Fading Away Just like my Muscles’’. DW. Available online from: https://www.dw.com/en/in-turkey-hope-for-justice-is-fading-away-just-like-my-muscles/a-39482207 [Accessed 08/03/2022].
[iv] Halavut, H. (2017) ‘Interview with Nuriye Gülmen: ‘I Have More Hope Today Than I Did on the First Day’’. 5 Harliler. Available online from: https://www.5harfliler.com/interview-with-nuriye-gulmen/ [Accessed on 08/03/2022].
[vii] Ibid.; see also Gülmen, N. (2016) ‘DİRENİŞİN TALEPLERi’. Available online from: https://nuriyegulmendireniyor.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/basin-aciklamasina-cagri/ [Accessed on 08/03/2022]; see also Wikipedia (2022) ‘Nuriye Gülmen’. Available online from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuriye_G%C3%BClmen#cite_note-18 [Accessed 08/03/2022].
[ix] Ibid.; see also Amnesty International (2017) ‘Urgent Action: Fear for Hunger Strikers’ Wellbeing’. Available online from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/EUR4463402017ENGLISH.pdf [Accessed on 08/03/2022].
[xi] ‘Urgent Action: Fear for Strikers’ Wellbeing’.
[xii] Cumhuriyet (2017) ‘Criminal Record of Gülmen and Özakça, Declared ‘Terrorists’ by Minister Soylu’. Available online from: https://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/bakan-soylunun-terorist-ilan-ettigi-gulmen-ve-ozakcanin-adli-sicil-kaydi-748105 [Accessed on 08/03/2022]; see also NTV (2017) ‘Statements by Minister Soylu about Semih Özakça and Nuriye Gülmen’. Available online from: https://www.ntv.com.tr/turkiye/bakan-soyludan-aclik-grevi-yapan-nuriye-gulmenle-ilgili-aciklamalar,Jg2i0I634EyPWqK_cXdIbg [Accessed on 08/03/2022]; see also Milliyet (2017) ‘The Unending Scenario of a Terrorist Organisation: “The Truth of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça”’. Available online from: https://web.archive.org/web/20170813220846/http://www.milliyet.com.tr/bir-teror-orgutunun-bitmeyen-senaryosu-ankara-yerelhaber-2179760/ [Accessed on 08/03/2022].
[xiii] ‘Urgent Action: Fear for Strikers’ Wellbeing’; see also ‘In Turkey, Hope for ‘Justice is Fading Away Just like My Muscles’.
[xiv] ‘In Turkey, Hope for ‘Justice is Fading Away Just like My Muscles’.
[xv] Armutcu, O. (2017) ‘The Constitutional Court Rejected the Appeal Against the Detention of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça’ Hurriyet. Available online from: https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/anayasa-mahkemesi-nuriye-gulmen-ve-semih-ozakcanin-tutukluluguna-yapilan-itirazi-reddetti-40503721 [Accessed on 08/03/2022]; see also Cakir, A. (2017) ‘ECHR Rejects Semih Özakça and Nuriye Gülmen’s Application’. Voice of America. Available online from: https://www.amerikaninsesi.com/a/aihm-semih-ozakca-ve-nuriye-gulmen-in-basvurusunu-reddetti/3969669.html [Accessed on 08/03/2022].
[xvi] Bianet (2017) ‘Nuriye Gülmen Released’. Available online from: https://bianet.org/english/human-rights/192100-nuriye-gulmen-released [Accessed on 08/03/2022].
[xvii] ‘Two Turkish Teachers End Almost 11-Month Hunger Strike’.
[xix] Duvar English (2020) ‘Dismissed Turkish Academic, Known for Hunger Strike, Arrested Again’. Available online from: https://www.duvarenglish.com/human-rights/2020/08/11/dismissed-turkish-academic-known-for-hunger-strike-arrested-again [Accessed on 08/03/2022].
[xx] Yeni Bir Mecra (2020) ‘Critical Decisions in Eğitim-Sen: Nuriye Gülmen was Expelled’. Available online from: https://yeni1mecra.com/egitim-sende-kritik-kararlar-nuriye-gulmen-ihrac-edildi/ [Accessed on 08/03/2022].
[xi] Duvar English (2021) ‘Turkey’s Top Court Rules Dismissed Educators’ Rights Not Violated’. Available online from: https://www.duvarenglish.com/turkeys-top-court-rules-rights-of-dismissed-educators-nuriye-gulmen-and-semih-ozakca-not-violated-news-59436 [Accessed on 08/03/2022].