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Academic driven to suicide in Turkey purge

By Mike Kenson

The ongoing purge carried out under the current state of emergency has resulted in tragedy for yet another academic in Turkey. Dr Mehmet Fatih Traş, 33, ended his own life after being removed from his duties at Cukurova University, Adana for signing a petition protesting the Turkish Armed Forces’ violent measures in the fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country’s southeast.

The Turkish news site ohaberbu.com reports that Traş had been experiencing financial difficulties after the university ended his contract, while an education workers’ union in his home town stated that his suicide was the result of psychological trauma. The decision to end his contract was made as a result of Traş signing the Academics for Peace petition, which was signed by 1128 academics on 11 January 2016. In spite of excellent academic credentials, the Doctor of Econometrics was unable to find a position at another university.

A letter, reportedly written by Traş on 1 February this year as part of an application for funding, details how Cukurova University lecturer Hasim Akca arranged for a committee meeting to review Traş’s contract after openly accusing him of sympathizing with the PKK. The accusations came shortly after the Kurdish nationalist group carried out a bombing attack in Istanbul on 10 December. At the meeting, Akca reportedly discussed how the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) had requested information from him on any academics given positions at the university by members of the faculty board, and how the same MIT contact had informed him that Traş had attended a rally of the HDP, the Kurdish party which is one of the four represented in the Turkish Parliament.

According to the same letter, after having his contract at Cukurova University cancelled Traş immediately applied for positions at other Turkish universities, but was rejected seemingly on account of his political stance. One university reportedly informed Traş that they were not hiring any signatories of the Academics for Peace petition, while another offered him a position which was later suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn.

A former colleague described Traş as an “excellent academic and a strong, courageous and moral character”, noting that he will be sorely missed “not only as a friend and family member, but as a person who insisted on defending vulnerable people from oppression.”

Traş is one of thousands of Turkish academics whose lives have been stricken since the July 2016 coup attempt. Despite the attempt being plotted and carried out by elements within the military, scholars have been among the most widely-hit in the purges which followed it. So far, 7,316 academics have lost their jobs since the coup attempt according to the turkeypurge.com website.

Unfortunately, Traş is not the first academic to take his own life as a result of the recent environment in Turkey. Assistant Professor Emin Komurculer, 33, committed suicide in July 2016 after being implicated in a police operation at his university in Izmir, and Dr Orhan Cetin also committed suicide during a police investigation into the Katip Celebi University hospital where he had worked.

As well as the threats to their livelihood, Human Rights Watch reports that a number of academics have been arrested for signing the Academics for Peace petition. Additionally, academics protesting the starkly oppressive measures taken by the government against them are subject to police brutality, now almost an ever-present facet of Turkish public life, as witnessed on Friday 10 February when police assaulted dozens of educational union members gathered at Ankara University to protest the purges.

While Traş is just one of the thousands of scholars targeted in the purge, his case highlights the hopelessness many must feel in a climate where, as Professor Haydar Sengul at Cukurova University noted in conversation with the T24 news site, academics are being treated as “scapegoats”. As Sengul states, nobody should be forced to face such consequences merely for their desire for peace and freedom of expression.


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