British scholar arrested in Istanbul over ‘terrorist propaganda’ in Kurdish holiday invitations

A British academic has been arrested in Istanbul for allegedly distributing invitations to Kurdish New Year celebrations. He was accused of spreading “terrorist propaganda” amid the ongoing crackdown on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party and its supporters.

Chris Stephenson, a Cambridge University graduate, British national and a professor of computer sciences, who was a lecturer at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, was detained on charges of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.”

Stephenson was arrested outside an Istanbul police department where he arrived in support of three Turkish academics arrested the day before. According to Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, the scholar was detained for spreading terrorist propaganda because he was in possession of leaflets that contained “PKK messages and images.”

However, according to other reports the leaflets were only invitations to attend the Kurdish Nevruz (New Year) holiday celebrations, and the man was not even distributing them.

Stephenson had several bilingual Newroz celebration invitations in his bag which were printed by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) provincial presidency, British The Telegraph reports citing friends of the detained scholar. Turkey’s Hurriyet daily also reported that he had been in possession of invitations to March 21 celebrations.

The British Foreign Office confirmed the incident and said it was providing “assistance to a British national who was arrested in Istanbul on March 15, 2016, and will remain in close contact with the local authorities.” At the same time, official from the British Embassy in Ankara told the Hurriyet that they are “aware of the detention of a British national and we are providing consular assistance.”

Stephenson was subsequently released on Wednesday after being questioned by a prosecutor, Turkish Hurriyet daily reports. According to Stephenson’s lawyer, Kemal Tuncaelli, the prosecutor plans to file a request to the Istanbul Governor’s Office demanding the academic’s deportation. Tuncaelli said it is unclear whether the investigation against his client would continue.

In the meantime, Stephenson’s wife, Filiz, dismissed reports that the scholar was distributing Nevruz leaflets when he was arrested.

Erdogan seeks to redefine terrorism notion to include civilians

Stephenson’s detention came just hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that notion of terrorism should be redefined to include those, who support or sympathize with terrorists because such people help terrorists to “achieve their goals.”

"Either they are on our side, or on the side of the terrorists," Erdogan said, adding that there is no difference between "a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims of the terrorist," AP reports.

“It might be the terrorist who pulls the trigger and detonates the bomb, but it is these supporters and accomplices who allow that attack to achieve its goal,” Erdogan said in a speech in the presidential palace late on Monday, as reported by the Turkish media.

“The fact their title is politician, academic, writer, journalist or head of a civil society group doesn't change the fact that individual is a terrorist... We should redefine terror and terrorist as soon as possible and put it in our penal code,” the president added.

His statement was apparently directed against the pro-Kurdish HDP, deemed by Turkish authorities to be a political wing of the Kurdish insurgents, as well as against opposition journalists and a group of academics that face prosecution for calling on the government to end the crackdown on Kurds in the southeast.

Stephenson became the latest academic circles victim detained in relation to an investigation into signatories of a petition calling for an end of the Turkish crackdown against Kurds in the country’s southeast. Since January, Turkey has arrested more than a dozen of its academics for signing a declaration denouncing Ankara’s military operations.

An open letter to Turkey’s leader under the title: “We won’t be a part of this crime,” which called on Ankara to end the “massacre and slaughter” in southeastern Turkey, was published in December 2015.

It was signed by some 1,128 Turkish and foreign academics from 89 universities around the world, including Noam Chomsky and Immanuel Wallerstein. Universities and prosecutor’s offices across Turkey then opened probes into many of the petition signees.

The Turkish military operation against PKK militants in the southeast of the country was launched in July 2015, breaking a ceasefire agreement that had held for two years.

The Turkish crackdown against the Kurds has been criticized by human rights groups. Amnesty International reported in January that at least 150 civilians, women and children among them, have been killed in the Turkish military operation, saying that some 200,000 people had been put at risk and were being denied access to services due to strict curfews. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, at least 198 civilians, including 39 children, have been killed in military operations in the area since August.