Acquitted of terrorism charges after a stint in prison, a Turkish professor at a French university remains stranded in Istanbul, stripped of his passport and subjected to an opaque investigation.
Colleagues of Tuna Altinel see the 55-year-old as yet another victim of a crackdown on academia and Kurdish causes that gained momentum after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived an attempted coup. ‘Status in 2016.
The professor of mathematical logic and set theory at the University Claude Bernard in Lyon is of the same opinion.
“I am a hostage of the Turkish state,” Altinel told AFP at his home in Istanbul.
Gangly, bespectacled and sometimes sporting a shy smile, the professor’s plight attracted additional attention as a diplomatic feud unfolded between Paris and Ankara last year.
Altinel’s personal nightmare began in May 2019, shortly after arriving on vacation in Turkey.
Instead of returning rested to Lyon, the French city where he taught and lived for 25 years, Altinel discovered that he was suspected of “belonging to a terrorist organization”.
He was arrested and tried for disseminating “terrorist propaganda” while acting as an interpreter at a pro-Kurdish meeting in France earlier this year.
Released in July 2019 and acquitted in January 2020, Altinel has since learned that he is the subject of a new Turkish investigation of which he knows little.
This investigation appears to have justified the government’s refusal to return his travel documents.
– ‘A bit sad’ –
Altinel first appeared on officials’ radar in 2016, when he joined nearly 2,000 academics in signing a petition calling for an end to Turkish military operations in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Banned Kurdish militants have waged an insurgency in the mountainous region for decades that has killed tens of thousands of people.
But while the activists are viewed as terrorists by Turkey’s Western allies, Erdogan’s critics believe he is using the struggle to suppress the legitimate rights of ethnic Kurds.
Altinel was also charged and acquitted after signing the 2016 petition. Now he says he’s “doing everything I can” to get his passport back and return to Lyon.
He took legal action against Turkish officials and was sacked from court to court by an “administrative machine that seeks to drown, crush people with bureaucracy,” he said.
Altinel said he had no choice but to conclude that his travel ban is punishment for his commitment to human rights and the Kurdish cause.
“The Turkish state is preventing opponents who embarrass it from leaving, keeping them hostage,” he said.
“It’s a way of accepting that the country is a prison, which is a bit sad.”
– Always teacher –
Altinel considers himself relatively lucky because – as a French civil servant – he still receives his salary.
He also continues to teach, in his own way.
“When I was in prison, I taught English and French to my fellow inmates,” said Altinel.
“So we continue these lessons through letters. They write to me and I answer letters of 15 or 20 pages. I teach them as well.
And while waiting for his legal problems to be resolved, he is also studying Kurdish, which he has started to pick up from his fellow inmates.
Although supported by other academics in France, who campaign for him on social networks, Altinel fears being forgotten by French officials and “falling into oblivion”.
Nonetheless, and possibly risking further alienating Turkish officials, Altinel still joins protests for causes he supports in Istanbul, refusing to “censor himself”.
“If I restricted myself, it would mean that I accept that the state has won,” he said. “And I don’t accept that. ”
© 2021 AFP