Carleton University Demands Turkey Release PhD Student Accused of Inciting Protests

September 28, 2020 Updated: September 28, 2020

Carleton University is demanding that the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa push for the release of one of its students detained in Turkey over allegations of inciting protests in 2014 that left 37 dead.

Cihan Erdal, a 32-year-old PhD candidate at Carleton and a permanent resident of Canada, is currently being held by the authorities in a detention centre in the Turkish capital, Ankara.

The Turkish government arrested Erdal and 81 others on Sept. 25 over violent protests in 2014 against an attack on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

“He has not been involved in Turkish politics since he moved to Canada to do his doctoral studies at Carleton in January, 2017,” the university said in a letter to the Embassy. “He had only returned to Turkey to visit family and then to interview Turkish activists as part of his doctoral fieldwork.”

In 2014, protesters accused the Turkish army of standing by as the ISIS terrorist group attacked Kobani, and so they flooded the streets in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast that October to protest against the authorities; 37 people died in the clash.

The Ankara prosecutor’s Terror Crimes Investigation Bureau said on Sept. 25 that Erdal and the other suspects incited the protests, saying they made “several calls … to invite the public to the streets and carry out terror acts.”

The 82 protesters had also signed a letter in 2014 to call for the Turkish authorities to step in to protect the Kurdish town.

Edral was an active member of the youth arm of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2014. The HDP has been accused by the Turkish government for having links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a group labelled as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and European Union—and supporting the protests.

The HDP’s former leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, were sentenced to jail in 2016 on charges related to the Kobani protests.

The arrest on Sept. 25 also included Ayhan Bilgen, the mayor of the northeastern Kars province, and Sirri Sureyya Onder, a former lawmaker; both are prominent figures in the HDP.

In response to the arrests, HDP’s current co-leader Mithat Sancar said the Turkish president’s AK Party “wants to intimidate the opposition and spread fear among the public by silencing the HDP.”

The PKK, also accused of inciting the demonstrations, has been fighting against the Turkish government for greater autonomy for the southeast since 1984.

Carleton University maintains that Erdal’s research is on youth-led social movements and has not been critical of the Turkish government.

“His research passed a formal proposal defense, and his research ethics proposal was approved before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He was beginning interviews online, while awaiting approval under the new pandemic ethics process to begin face to face interviews in Turkey, Athens, and Paris,” the letter said.

Erdal’s partner, Ömer Ongun, said he can’t reconcile the accusations of the Turkish authorities against Erdal.

“Cihan is one of the kindest, most peaceful people in the world,” he told CBC in a telephone interview from his home in Ottawa. “To accuse him for calling for violence and terrorism, it’s devastating, it’s ridiculous. We are all shocked.”

With files from Reuters