More than 150 people were arrested during protests at one of Turkey’s top universities, leading to a sharp escalation in the clash between students and staff and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A total of 159 protesters were arrested Monday evening after failing to heed warnings to end their protests on and around the campus of Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University, the city’s governor’s office said.
The protests – with students shouting “police, get out” and “universities are ours” according to Reuters news agency – followed weeks of tensions with the government after Mr. Erdogan announced the appointment of a rector, Melih Bulu, who was widely recognized by Bogazici Students and staff will be rejected.
The decision has sparked rare demonstrations in a country where authorities barely tolerate public discontent.
The action taken at a time when Mr Erdogan was promising democratic reforms was quickly condemned by the Turkish opposition. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), described the arrests as “unacceptable” and called on Mr Bulu to resign to put an end to “this ugly situation”.
Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP mayor of Istanbul, said he wanted to mediate between students and authorities. Traditionally, employees of Turkish universities elected a rector from among their own ranks.
But Mr Erdogan, who has long sought greater control over the country’s academic institutions, has given himself the power to elect university leaders after a coup attempt in 2016, which was followed by a state of emergency that gave him extensive new powers.
Government supporters say the ruling party is fighting elitism in the country’s higher education system.
However, Bogazici’s defenders say that the university – a public institution that does not charge tuition fees – has been shown to defend the rights of all students, including those from the religiously conservative part of society that Mr Erdogan himself came from.
You see the president’s decision to appoint a rector as part of a wider assault on academic freedom in the country. Thousands of academics were unceremoniously dismissed after the failed coup in 2016, and university officials across Turkey fear that speaking freely about politics could cost them their jobs.
Mr Erdogan has already objected to Bogazici’s appointment. In 2016, his decision to elect Mehmet Ozkan, an engineering professor whose sister was a member of the ruling party, as rector of the university was also condemned and protested by students and staff.
However, critics say the final appointment, announced in early January, is an even bigger blow, given that Bulu has been politically active with the ruling party in the past and is the first rector to be selected outside the university since a 1980 military coup .
The 50-year-old, who wanted to run as a candidate for the ruling party in a 2015 election, was also accused of not having the academic caliber to run the prestigious state university. He has been accused of plagiarism in academic articles and the thesis he submitted for his PhD thesis in finance – a claim he has denied.
Protests eased for weeks, but tensions escalated over the weekend after several students were arrested for inciting hatred and insulting religious values after creating a poster with LGBT flags depicting Islam’s holiest site – Kabaa in Mecca – depicted.
The picture, which was shown at an exhibition at Bogazici University, prompted the Turkish Interior Minister to label the students in question as “LGBT perverts”. Meanwhile, on Monday, Mr Erdogan praised the youth wing of his party for “not being the LBGT youth”. The Turkish President has claimed that “terrorists” are involved in the protests.