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Clockwise from top left: Anadolu Kültür general coordinator Asena Günal; academics Turgut Tarhanlı and Betül Tanbay; film producer Çiğdem Mater; and human-rights advocate Meltem Aslan. Photo: ArtAsiaPacific.

Turkish Cultural Figures Detained Amid Government Crackdown on Freedom of Expression

On November 16, Turkish police arrested thirteen cultural workers, including academics, activists, and employees of the Istanbul-based NGO Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture)—a nonprofit advocating for artistic rights and cultural diversity. The detainees were charged with “creating chaos and mayhem” and “seeking to overthrow the government” for their support of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which began as small-scale demonstrations by environmental activists and grew into a national uprising following violent clashes with demonstrators and police.

Anadolu Agency, Turkey’s state-run news agency, reports that the individuals were singled out because of their ties to the incarcerated peace activist Osman Kavala, head of Anadolu Kültur. The human rights defender was arrested at the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul on October 18, 2017. He was accused of attempting to overthrow the state and of masterminding attempts to expand the Gezi Park protests. Hyperallergic reports that as of this month, he remains in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison, though he has yet to be formally charged. 

While twelve of the thirteen individuals who were arrested have since been released, but have been banned from leaving Turkey, seven other people are also being sought out by authorities over their alleged anti-government activities. 

“This latest wave of detentions of academics and activists, on the basis of absurd allegations, shows that the authorities are intent on continuing their brutal crackdown of independent civil society, and shatters any illusion that Turkey is normalizing following the lifting of the state of emergency,” Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey Strategy and Research Manager, told the Saudi Gazette.

Since the attempted coup in July 2016, there has been a surge in violations of freedom of expression, arrests, and attempts to eliminate dissenting voices in Turkey. According to The Guardian, more than 142,000 people, including academics, activists, civil society leaders, cultural producers, and journalists, have been arrested. Tens of thousands have been removed from government jobs, and almost two hundred media outlets have been shut down.

Among the detainees targeted during the probe into Anadolu Kültür were academics from Boğaziçi and Bilgi Universities, including Betül Tanbay, mathematics professor at Boğaziçi and Turgut Tarhanlı, dean of the faculty of law at Bilgi; Çiğdem Mater, film producer and coordinator of the Armenia-Turkey Cinema Platform in Istanbul; Meltem Aslan, the former director general and codirector of Truth Justice Memory Center; and employees and board members of Anadolu Kültür, including general coordinator Asena Günal, program overseer at Istanbul’s Depo art space; Yiğit Ekmekçi, deputy chair of the executive board; Ali Hakan Altınay, executive board member; and staffer Bora Sarı.  

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