In early 2016, a group of academics from Turkey published an open letter to the government, condemning military action in the country’s Kurdish region. The group, calling themselves ‘Academics for Peace’, were denounced as terrorist-sympathizers.
Then, in July 2016, tanks rolled across Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge. The Turkish Parliament and the Presidential Palace were bombed. There was violence on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara—the failed coup killed more than 200 people.
Since then, Erdogan’s government has fired over 4,800 academics from Turkish universities by emergency degree—more than 300 of them members of Academics for Peace. 15 universities have been closed down and 200 students expelled as part of a nationwide purge that’s seen around 100,000 public servants sacked or suspended.
US-based charity Scholars at Risk—which finds research and teaching positions abroad for academics under threat in their home countries—received 756 applications for academic placement abroad between August 2016 and August 2017. 470 of them (over 60%) were from Turkey. They received more calls for help from academics from Turkey than Syria.
Shreya Balhara, program associate for protection services at Scholars at Risk in New York, assesses applications for placement from potentially at-risk scholars.
“Turkey is the country we work with applicants from the most,” she says. “Some are facing criminal trials that could result in a prison sentence; some have been dismissed and are being prevented from taking up other academic jobs—it’s a very difficult situation.
“Sometimes, our hands are tied,” she continues. “We accept an application but a scholar cannot travel—they find their passport has been cancelled.”
The Turkish example is most pertinent, but the persecution and suppression of scholars is a longstanding, global issue.
Stephen Wordsworth, executive director for Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics), recalls a case from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe a few years ago.
“We had someone who’d made themselves unpopular by being very active with one of the opposition parties,” he says.
“One day, he went to the university to deliver a lecture and, in the front row of the lecture hall, a row of people dressed in black leather jackets were sat staring at him; clearly from the security services.”
Both Cara and Scholars at Risk work with hundreds of academics under threat globally each year. Shreya’s seen cases from China where scholars self-censor. “They know their work could be taken as criticism against the government,” she says.
One high-profile case is that of Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu, a scholar and professor of economics from authoritarian Azerbaijan, who applied for help from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF).
Oil-rich Azerbaijan has been in the news recently for the Azerbaijani Laundromat, a two-year, $2.9 billion money laundering scheme with state ministries, the national bank, and companies linked to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev (pictured below) involved.
Gubad is a senior policy analyst, and formerly the chairman, of Azerbaijan’s Economic Research Center (ERC)—a leading regional economic think-tank. His research has centered on the politics of natural resources—how oil can help dictatorships survive—highlighting corruption and the informal economy in Azerbaijan.
He’s also a member of the international board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)—a global standard promoting the transparent and accountable governance of oil, gas, and mineral resources—which has suspended Azerbaijan’s membership.
In 2014, authorities in Azerbaijan tightened the operating environment for NGOs and think-tanks, cracking down on freedom of expression. Officials stormed the ERC’s offices in Baku, seizing computers and more than 3,000 financial documents.
Prosecutors blocked the company’s bank account and imposed a $125,000 tax penalty, without prior tax inspection. Currently under criminal investigation, the ERC has been forced to cease operations.
Like many of his senior colleagues, Gubad had his personal bank account blocked, and a pro-government newspaper started publishing defamatory material about him.
“In my country, there’s no space for open debate,” Gubad explains. “Everybody is afraid to express their position and everything is totally controlled by the government. When I published my research about the real situation, they didn’t like it.”
Unable to live a normal life, Gubad contacted the Scholar Rescue Fund, securing an academic placement at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in the US. “Here, I’m in a safe place where there’s academic freedom,” he says.
In October next year, there’ll be presidential elections in Azerbaijan. Usually, in the lead up to that, Gubad explains, the government ramps its suppression of its critics.
The future, however, is out of Gubad’s control. His visa expires at the end of March 2018. Like many similar cases, his next steps are in the hands of US immigration. After a month’s grace period, he’ll likely return home to Azerbaijan.
“I plan to go back, because I don’t have an alternative,” he says. “But I’m an optimist. I hope for saner times ahead.”