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Turkey: Academics on hunger strike as effects of post-coup decrees deepen

Professors lay down their gowns during a protest against the dismissal of academics, at the Cebeci campus of Ankara University in Ankara, Turkey, 10 February 2017
Professors lay down their gowns during a protest against the dismissal of academics, at the Cebeci campus of Ankara University in Ankara, Turkey, 10 February 2017

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

This statement was originally published on on 11 May 2017.

Fears are growing for two Turkish academics whose health is deteriorating after more than 60 days on hunger strike, PEN International said today.

Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça went on hunger strike on 8 March 2017 in the country's capital, Ankara, demanding that their jobs be reinstated. Gülmen and Özakça are two of 4,811 academics and 40,000 teachers who were dismissed by emergency decree following the coup attempt of 15 July 2016.

Under the state of emergency, those dismissed from their positions are subjected to a lifetime ban from seeking employment as civil servants and face a range of social and professional hurdles. Their passports, and those of some of their spouses, have been cancelled as has their health insurance.

Individuals dismissed from their positions can only challenge the dismissal decision through the Commission to Investigate State of Emergency Matters. Formally initiated by decree number 685 on 23 January 2017, the Commission has yet to be assembled while concerns have been raised over its functionality and independence. Turkey's Constitutional Court has also ruled that, according to the Constitution, an emergency decree cannot be overruled by a higher court.

The Turkish authorities maintain that these unprecedented measures aim at safeguarding the country's security. However national and international human rights groups, as well as opposition parties, continue to express deep concerns at the alarming extent of the crackdown, which has resulted in a purge of dissidents voices across professions. Around 165 journalists and writers are still detained, making Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.

Prior to their dismissals, Nuriye Gülmen, a translator, worked as a research assistant in the faculty of comparative literature at Selçuk University in Konya while Semih Özakça was a high school teacher in the Mardin Mazıdağı province state. They were dismissed on the grounds of having ties to terrorist organizations, which they deny. No further explanation was provided for their dismissal. The pair has been holding a sit-in in front of Ankara's famous Human Rights Memorial, a statue of a woman reading the declaration of human rights, since December 2016. They have reported been continuously harassed by police and taken into custody 31 times. Nuriye Gülmen was named one of eight leading women of 2016 by CNN International. Both have reportedly lost a lot of weight and have been diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) by medical professionals.

PEN International calls on the Turkish authorities to end their far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression, reverse their decision to implement a state of emergency for three more months and uphold the independence of the judiciary. Those dismissed from their jobs should have immediate access to an independent and effective appeals mechanism. Where no legitimate grounds are found for their dismissals, they have the right to be reinstated in their positions and the right to legal remedies.

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