“Yesterday was terrible,” says Güniz Gürüz, a chemical engineer at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Her husband, Kemal Gürüz, was one of a half dozen academics swept up in a political trial that has dragged on for 5 years. All of them were sentenced to between 10 and 23 years in prison on 5 August for committing treason and supporting terrorism—trumped up charges according to human rights organizations. Thousands of protestors were dispersed by tear gas after the verdicts were announced.
The next morning brought a glimmer of hope. “We learned that there was no arrest verdict,” she says. That means that Kemal Gürüz may be able to go home while his lawyer launches an appeal. “No credible evidence [against him] was ever produced,” says Carol Corillon, executive director of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies (IHRN) in Washington, D.C. Kemal Gürüz has spent the past year in jail during the court proceedings, during which time his health has deteriorated due to a blocked artery. He attempted to commit suicide by cutting his wrists in his prison cell in June. “It is a nightmare and hard to believe what we are going through,” Güniz Gürüz told ScienceInsider by e-mail.
According to the government, Kemal Gürüz and the other 274 people convicted in the trial are all connected to a secret organization of secular elites known as “Ergenekon.” The cabal’s supposed purpose is to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government, controlled since 2002 by the religiously conservative AK Party. But critics claim that the government is using the trial as an opportunity to punish its critics and political opponents.
The plight of Kemal Gürüz is held up as a case in point. After a career as a chemical engineer, he chaired Turkey’s Council of Higher Education during the previous administration. One of the most controversial policies during his tenure was a ban on female university students wearing headscarves, a Muslim practice. Turkey’s parliament instituted the ban as a national law, but religious conservatives blame Kemal Gürüz for enforcing the ban on campuses, says Aslı Tolun, a molecular biologist at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Once it came to power, the AK Party reversed that policy, as well as many others related to religion in Turkish higher education.
The other accused academics are medical professors who are former presidents of Turkish universities, such as Mehmet Haberal, one of Turkey’s most accomplished doctors, a transplant surgeon with an active research laboratory. He was sentenced to 12 years and 6 months in prison. Like Kemal Gürüz, he has recently languished in prison, suffering from liver disease that is reportedly worsening due to improper medical treatment.
Haberal and two other accused doctors are allowed to go home pending their appeals. Kemal Gürüz, meanwhile, faces double jeopardy: He must endure another trial on similar charges starting next month.