Acquitted of terror charges after a stint in jail, a Turkish professor at a French university remains stranded in İstanbul, stripped of his passport and subjected to an opaque probe.
Tuna Altınel’s colleagues view the 55-year-old as another victim of a crackdown against academia and Kurdish causes that gathered force after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan survived a coup attempt in 2016.
The professor of mathematical logic and set theory at Lyon’s Claude Bernard University agrees.
“I am a hostage of the Turkish state,” Altınel told AFP at his İstanbul home.
Gangly, bespectacled and occasionally sporting a shy grin, the professor’s plight gained added attention as a diplomatic feud played out in the past year between Paris and Ankara.
Altınel’s personal nightmare began in May 2019, shortly after he arrived for a holiday in Turkey.
Instead of returning well-rested to Lyon, the French city where he has taught and lived for 25 years, Altınel discovered that he was suspected of “membership in a terrorist organization.”
He was detained and tried for disseminating “terrorist propaganda” while acting as an interpreter at a pro-Kurdish meeting in France earlier that year.
Released in July 2019 and acquitted in January 2020, Altınel has since learned that he is the subject of a new Turkish investigation of which he knows little about.
That probe appears to have served as justification for the government’s refusal to return his travel documents.
‘A little sad’
Altınel first popped up on officials’ radar in 2016, when he joined nearly 2,000 academics in signing a petition demanding an end of Turkish military operations in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants have been waging an insurgency in the mountainous region for decades that has killed tens of thousands.
But while the militants are viewed as terrorists by Turkey’s Western allies, Erdoğan’s critics believe he is using the fight to suppress ethnic Kurds’ legitimate rights.
Altınel was also charged and acquitted after signing the 2016 petition. Now, he said he is “doing everything I can” to get back his passport and return to Lyon.
He has filed a lawsuit against Turkish officials and been bounced from one court to another by an “administrative machine that seeks to drown, crush people with bureaucracy,” he said.
Altınel said he has little choice but to conclude that his travel ban is punishment for his commitment to human rights and the Kurdish cause.
“The Turkish state prevents 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 little sad.”
Altınel considers himself relatively lucky because — as a French civil servant — he still gets his salary.
He also continues to teach, in his own special way.
“When I was in prison, I taught my fellow inmates English and French,” Altınel said.
“So we continue these lessons through letters. They write to me and I write back letters that are 15 or 20 pages long. I teach them that way.”
And while waiting for his legal problems to play themselves out, he also studies Kurdish, which he began to pick up from his fellow inmates.
Although supported by other academics in France, who are campaigning for him on social media, Altınel fears being forgotten by French officials and “falling into oblivion”.
Nevertheless, and perhaps risking further alienating Turkish officials, Altınel still joins demonstrations for causes he backs in İstanbul, refusing to “self-censor.”
“If I restricted myself, it would mean I accept that the state has won,” he said. “And I do not accept that.”