On a sunny day in March 2016, Turkish forensic physician Şebnem Korur Fincanci drove into Cizre, a town in southeastern Turkey. The government had just lifted a 79-day curfew meant to help the Turkish military rout out members of the separatist PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkey has long fought to keep insurgents from creating a separate Kurdish country, and has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Like most people outside of Cizre, Fincanci had no idea what had transpired during the lockdown. She arrived to a devastated city.
The air, she says, smelled of burnt flesh. Houses were riddled with bullet holes, the furniture inside burned or bashed with sledgehammers. Residents led her to three bombed-out buildings. Fincanci entered one and saw within the basement rubble a jawbone and a pair of eyeglasses. She could immediately tell that the jawbone was a child’s.
Fincanci had not brought her forensic tools. She had assumed that this visit was preliminary, a time to talk with Cizre residents about their medical needs. So, she snapped pictures of the bone, the glasses and the surrounding debris with her cell phone. Residents later confirmed that the building had been home to a young family.
A few days later, Fincanci wrote a report and posted it on the website of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, a volunteer organization she helped found in 1990. She also sent the report to Turkey’s internal affairs office. Fincanci wrote that the military had committed atrocities against innocent civilians. She demanded a full investigation. Instead, in June 2016, the government charged her with spreading terrorist propaganda. “I was arrested and sent to prison,” Fincanci says.
Across the ages, scientists have come under fire for all manner of offense, often tied to the work they do. Chinese astronomers Hi and Ho were executed over 4,000 years ago, according to lore, for failing to predict a solar eclipse. In 1633, the Roman Catholic Church convicted astronomer Galileo Galilei of heresy for stating that the Earth revolves around the sun — a concept antithetical to the church doctrine that put the Earth at the center of the universe. He spent the remaining nine years of his life under house arrest.
In the United States, during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, government officials monitored and interrogated academics seen as Communist sympathizers. Princeton University physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leader of the Manhattan Project, was accused of being a national security risk and lost his security clearance.
In the aftermath of World War II, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so that atrocities of the Holocaust would never be replayed. The document stated that every person everywhere has the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, the right to work and education, and the freedom of opinion and expression.
The declaration provided a blueprint for how people around the world ought to be treated, yet human rights abuses, against scientists and others, have continued.
The Cold War’s end in 1991 led to a shift from clearly totalitarian regimes where citizens had few personal and political freedoms to countries that appear democratic but exhibit varying levels of authoritarian control, says Andrew Anderson, executive director of Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization based in Dublin.
The blurred line between authoritarianism and democracy in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a case in point, Anderson says. Scientists almost anywhere can find themselves under fire as even staunch democracies, including Greece and the United States, struggle to balance state interests and academic freedoms. Some scientists are attacked for sharing their research and others stumble into dangerous situations while doing their jobs, such as doctors accused of providing medical care to protesters or rebels. Others feel compelled to use their standing as public figures to resist and expose wrongdoing.
Quantifying the number of scientists whose human rights are under threat is challenging, but a November 19 report from Scholars at Risk, a nonprofit organization that helps persecuted academics, provides some context. From September 1, 2018, to August 31, 2019, the organization documented 324 attacks on students and academics, including scientists, from 56 countries, says Scholars at Risk advocacy director Clare Robinson. The report also points to countries with increasing restrictions on academics, including India, China, Sudan, Brazil and for the fourth year in a row, Turkey, where thousands of academics have been charged with disloyalty, treason and terrorism.