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Fears of government seizure spill over to Turkey's universities

Private universities in Turkey appear to be next in line in government crosshairs after a number of companies, newspapers and TV channels were taken over by pro-government trustees.
Riot police stand guard outside the Kanalturk and Bugun TV building in Istanbul, Turkey, October 28, 2015. Turkish police on Wednesday stormed the offices of an opposition media company, days before an election, in a crackdown on companies linked to a U.S.-based cleric and foe of President Tayyip Erdogan, live footage showed. Brawls broke out and police sprayed water cannon to disperse dozens of people in front of the offices of Kanalturk and Bugun TV in Istanbul, a live broadcast on Bugun's website showed.

A week before Turkey’s Nov. 1 elections, Koza Ipek Holding, whose 22 companies include a media group, were handed over to trustees under a judicial ruling requested by the chief prosecutor’s office in Ankara. Pro-government figures were appointed to run the companies, among them two TV channels and two newspapers. An arrest warrant was issued for holding owner Hamdi Akin Ipek, currently abroad, on charges of being a leader of a terrorist organization linked to US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen.

After the trustees took over, the media group, which was a tough government critic, underwent a pro-government remake overnight. The editorial policies of the Bugun and Millet newspapers turned upside down, while the Bugun and Kanalturk TV channels began broadcasting documentaries. The trustees fired at least 58 employees.

The seizure and silencing of the media outlets, which followed a similar move against a major bank earlier this year, sparked harsh criticism both at home and abroad. Some in the Turkish media, meanwhile, were keen to recall the close bonds between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulen community, including Koza Ipek Holding, before the two allies fell out amid a corruption scandal in December 2013.

The day the trustees arrived to take over media offices in Istanbul and Ankara, riot police used pepper gas and water cannons to disperse crowds of protesters who had gathered outside, brandishing Turkish flags and chanting slogans.

According to pro-government media, the companies were handed over to trusteeship on charges the companies were involved in money laundering.

The move was met with indignation and concern by the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association as well as politicians and jurists. Metin Feyzioglu, the head of the Turkish Bar Association, charged that the so-called criminal judgeships of peace, which issued the ruling, “are functioning in a closed-circuit system and have become the government’s new stick” since their creation last year amid a government crackdown on the Gulen community. The judiciary must be overhauled to become independent, impartial, fair and accountable, Feyzioglu stressed.

Mujdat Ilhan, the chairman of the Denizli Bar Association, accused the government of using the law as a tool and warned that such “judicial massacres” would have serious repercussions on the economy. “The injustice this company is facing today will befall other companies on other grounds tomorrow. No company … in Turkey can feel safe in such a climate, including foreign investors,” he said.

But even before the dust settled, fears grew that the onslaught would expand to other media as well as universities close to the Gulen community, including the Koza Ipek Holding’s newly established Ipek University in Ankara. Moreover, the seizure of university administrations and properties could be carried out even easier — by simply amending regulations governing the Higher Education Board (YOK), the body that oversees Turkey’s universities. On Nov. 2, a pro-government journalist even listed the institutions that are allegedly next in line to be taken over by trustees: the Zaman daily, Samanyolu TV, Samanyolu Haber TV, and Fatih, Ipek, Zirve, Suleyman Sah, Mevlana, Turgut Ozal and Istanbul Sehir universities.

Many jurists say the move against Koza Ipek Holding was a gross violation of the law. In an interview with Al-Monitor, attorney Ali Ozdemir, a veteran member of the Ankara Bar Association, explained that the seizure could have been carried out only after the completion of a trial process, including all appeal stages.

The way Koza Ipek Holding was handed over to trusteeship is unprecedented in the history of modern Turkey, Ozdemir said. He added, “There was no trial. The case is still in the investigation stage. What is clear, though, is that the institution is oppositional and seen as an enemy. The measure of trusteeship is based on the Turkish Civil Code. … Courts can directly appoint trustees as custodians to manage properties owned by minors or individuals with mental disability, based on Article 403 of the Civil Code. But when a company is implicated in criminal activity, then Article 133 of the Criminal Procedures Code is being implemented. This provision requires a trial and even a definitive judgement for a seizure to proceed. But here [in the Koza Ipek case], no trial has taken place. The appointment of trustees under Article 133 requires concrete evidence, including the motives of the crime. And these are also mentioned in the law, including [crimes related to] narcotics, money forgery, human trafficking, prostitution, embezzlement, laundering of assets stemming from criminal activity and espionage.”

Ozdemir warned that other business groups known as AKP opponents could face a similar fate. While stressing that his worldview was “diametrically opposed” to that of the Gulen community, he said, “We must stand up against unlawful practices regardless of how different our ideas are.”

Yet universities now seem to be on the line. Media reports claim YOK will be empowered to close down, seize or hand over to trustees any private university it likes. The controversy stems from a draft amending the regulation on private universities. The related provision, which defines when university licenses are canceled, says a university could be closed down or have its management seized when it becomes “the focal point of acts against the country’s indivisible integrity.” If the draft is approved, it would completely lift the autonomy of universities, while those shut down will see their movable and immovable properties as well as all real and financial rights transferred to the nearest state university.

Following the outcry in the media and the academic community, YOK said in a written statement that the draft was misunderstood, arguing that it actually narrowed the scope of closure reasons. Stressing that the draft was made public to ensure a transparent and inclusive review, YOK said changes would be made “if necessary” to reflect incoming ideas and proposals.

Academics, however, remained unconvinced. The head of the Active Educationalists Trade Union, Osman Bahce, argued the draft paved the way for the “nationalization” of private universities. Professor Sedat Laciner, former president of Canakkale University, said the move aimed to stifle academic freedom and make sure all universities toed the line.

As the criticism simmered, YOK removed the draft from its website, leaving behind a message that read, “The time for sharing views and proposals … is up. See you next time.”