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Interview With the Students Detained in Boğaziçi Protests: “The detentions have become a witch hunt”

The protests against the appointment of a rector at Boğaziçi University continue. After the first day of protests, more than 50 students were detained. All of them were subsequently released after two days of detention. Students report that they were subjected to strip searches, harassment, threats of rape, verbal and physical violence in detention. We interviewed two students to talk about what happened. 

“It was a protest call against the appointment of trustees removing democratic elections, we heeded the call.” 

CSSA: Boğaziçi Solidarity made an open call to all university students to protest the appointed trustee Melih Bulu. You are not Boğaziçi University students. What made you join the protests? 

– We all struggle against appointed rectors in our own universities. The situation at METU or İU is no different than Boğaziçi University. This was a call against the mentality which goes against demoractic elections and chooses to appoint authorities. So we heeded the call.  

We watched the footage of the protests inside and outside the campuses. How was that day? 

+  There are administrative units inside the South Campus in Boğaziçi University. When we [the groups of protestors] wanted to get in there, they locked the gates. That’s the gate you see in those famous photos of handcuffed gates. This is what we had in mind: A protest about a university should take place within the university, naturally. We insisted adamantly. Yet the police and private security forces sought to prevent it. We all headed to the North Campus and organized an open forum there. When we wanted to go back to the South Campus, the police tried to stop us with water cannons and tear gas. They were trying to stop the will of the students and university community to elect their own administrators. We continue to insist, there have been no retreats so far. 

“It has become a witch hunt

The typical picture we see at the students protests is the police detaining students during the protest. This was not the case with this protest. Why do you think they chose to act this way? 

–  Their choice is due to the power of public opinion. What we have witnessed is that the police authority, whoever was in charge, did not have a say in this. When they reverse handcuffed our friends with their arms behind their backs, the reaction was so strong they had to let them go. Later, when they realized this would get even bigger, they launched a campaign to divide the students. This meant that we were shown as a target on social media. They sought to distort the public image of the struggle. After that, our houses were raided in the early morning in an effort to criminalize us. 

+ We were detained on the charges of resisting the police and in breach of the law on demonstrations and assembly marches. It was a coincidence but all of the people who were detained were members of youth organizations. If what they deemed resisting the police was standing against the police shields, then I remind them that among the detainees were those who did not get involved in any physical conflict. Some of the students recognized by the police from previous protests were also detained, after being deliberately picked up. This is an effort to criminalize the protests.

– When we were in detention we had the opportunity to see our case file. One of the marked people was a friend who was not even in the frontlines, but just had their picture taken at the back, holding up a banner. This had nothing to do with being by the gates or resisting the police. It is a witch hunt, first they came up with a list, then they marked the ones they saw in protest and decided to detain them. And in the morning our houses were raided.

Following the appointment of the rector, AKP administrators said “It is not a crime for a person to have political opinions”, in reference to Melih Bulu. Yet in this case, as you claim, the detention of the students is based on their political opinions. How shall we approach this? 

– This has become a witch hunt. They showed the students they chose as targets through social media trolls and then detained them. Melih Bulu is not just an old AKP candidate. He used to manage a social media army called Virtual Raiders, working on behalf of AKP. They tried to mob us online, by posting police footage. If on that day people were detained from the protest, the majority would have been Boğaziçi students.  Melih Bulu himself said it, he said that the Boğaziçi students had no issues with him, those who protested were outsiders. Yet they themselves know that those who stand against Bulu are Boğaziçi University students. We were among the hundreds of students who showed solidarity with them. University students don’t want appointed rectors. 

Then it is our time to ask…

During this period, the media targeted you as well, using the term “terrorist” to refer to you. What do you make of it? 

+ It depends on what you make of the concept of terror. If the political power determines what it means, yes, we are terrorists. Because we try to defend the students’ rights both through legal and practical ways. But if they suggest we belong to organizations they can’t even properly pronounce, this is entirely a lie. If that were the case, would we be released immediately? All our friends were released. Then it is our turn to ask. Will the high up authorities now claim that the prosecutors and judges who released us aided and abetted terrorist organizations? 

As we know from before, students are often subjected to mistreatment and battery in detention. Yet this time there was a special wave of hatred and assault. What do you think about this? 

In detention, they especially targeted our LGBTI+ friends with a strip search. This was definitely a deliberate act. These are people who try to ban even the rainbow. This is an assault completely motivated by hate. If we were called in to testify, we would have gone to testify at the station. Are there any legal grounds for what we have been through based on these charges? For them to raid our houses, to break the doors of the houses we live in with our families or even the houses we don’t occupy, for our 4-5 years old siblings to be woken up in terror, for us to be woken up with long rifles, to have our hands cuffed behind our backs? No, this is entirely a political need. A deliberate attempt to intimidate the public opinion. They did this to scare off the students, their families, anyone who would show solidarity. But it didn’t work. Including our families, everyone stood by us. The march starting from Beşiktaş, proceeding in Kadıköy showed that no one was scared. 

Reverse handcuffing and strip search is torture, we will not stop saying that.

The statements of the students upon their release and of their lawyers attracted a lot of public attention. What have you witnessed or experienced in detention?

– In detention our friends were denied their regular medicines. They told them that they did not have prescriptions yet these medicines are given three monthly prescriptions. The water and sugar cubes our attorneys brought for us were not let in [referring to the sugar and water needed during their hunger strike]. We were battered. We were held in reverse handcuffs at the hospital.Basic needs such as hygienic pads were not given. They claimed they couldn’t reach our attorneys and lied in order to prevent us from getting our provisions. We gave them names of five lawyers, they claimed they could reach none. Later we found out that the lawyers were kept waiting outside -which we already had guessed. 

+ There were strange fits of rage. Police would start verbally and physically assault us, saying “We know you will be released, we’ll do as much as we can while you are in here”. Aside from being indoctrinated, the police was also under the influence of all the allegations that they read on social media and in the media. For instance, they thought that the LGBTI+ flag belonged to a militant organization, which became their excuse for violence.

– During the detentions, for instance, while leaving the station the pro-government media outlets had their camera crews shooting. When we said that having our hands cuffed behind our backs is not legal, we would be told that this is the only way to handcuff but we would see petty criminals handcuffed with their arms in front of them passing us by. They did this deliberately to incriminate us in video footage. Yet we did not step back as we knew our friends would stand by us. Reverse handcuff and strip searches are torture, we will not stop repeating it, no matter whose camera is in front of us.