Efforts to curb the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic should not be used as an excuse to “silence critical voices”, Europe’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell said on Thursday, after more than a hundred of protesters were detained after protesting against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a controversial party member to head Istanbul’s Bogazici university.

“The European Union is seriously concerned over the negative developments in Turkey in the areas of the rule of law, human rights and the judiciary,” the Union’s External Action Service (EEAS) said in a statement.

“The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be used as a means to silence critical voices,” it added, arguing that the students were exercising their “legitimate right” to freedom of assembly.

Borrell also warned that Istanbul governor’s decision to ban all kinds of meetings, demonstrations and marches in two districts covering the hinterland of the Bogazici university is a “deeply worrying development” that breaches the country’s commitment to reforms “towards EU values and standards”.

He also slammed closure of an LGBT association and the anti-LGBT rhetoric by high-level officials, labelling it as “hate speech.”

Erdogan’s decision to appoint Melih Bulu, a person with close ties to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as the rector of the Turkish university that hosts more then 15,000 students on the European side of Istanbul has been condemned by students and academics who voiced concerns over the increasing politicisation of university administrations across the country.

Bulu, who was appointed through a presidential decree issued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on January 1, ran for AKP in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Erdogan gained the authority to appoint rectors to the university through an emergency decree issued in 2016, after he survived a failed coup in 2016.

Protests erupted last month with students decrying infringements on academic independence and escalated this week, with clashes between protesters and the police. What started as peaceful demonstrations has now turned into a civil unrest, marking one of the biggest mobilisations since the 2013 Gezi Park movement. 

“The excessive use of force by the police against people using their right to freedom of opinion is contradictory to Turkey’s obligations as a candidate country and long-standing member of the Council of Europe,” Borrell added, decrying the police crackdown on demonstrators, as hundreds were detained this week in Istanbul and Ankara. 

Reacting to foreign criticism by Washington and Paris, Erdogan said that France should be “ashamed” of the way the government is dealing with protests, whilst recalling that the US “hit record high in racism”, referring to the events that took place in the US before elections. 


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