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Erdogan shuts down Turkish university linked to rival Davutoglu

Istanbul Sehir University became mired in controversy after the former premier quit the ruling party in September
Istanbul Sehir University had built new educational facilities on disputed land (MEE/Ragip Soylu)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered the closure of a private university in Istanbul linked to former prime minister and political rival Ahmet Davutoglu, according to a decree published on Tuesday.

A presidential order signed by Erdogan on Monday, but published overnight, said that Istanbul Sehir University's "permission to conduct any activities has been withdrawn".

The university was established in 2008 by the Foundation for Sciences and Arts (BISAV), whose founders included Davutoglu, but the university became mired in controversy after Davutoglu quit Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in September.

Davutoglu set up his own rival Future Party in December.

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The university was once a beacon for conservatives, who hoped it would break the tradition of secular institutions dominating the modern Turkish republic.

Erdogan gave an inaugural speech at the university's opening ceremony in 2010, two years after its foundation, declaring his support to Sehir as it tried to become a scientific organisation that would be respected internationally.

At the ceremony, Erdogan was photographed with a smiling Davutoglu, a professor and the then-foreign minister.

However, the two men gradually fell out over multiple issues, and Davutoglu, who became prime minister in August 2014, was forced to resign in May 2016.

Sehir has assets frozen

The university has been involved in a years-long court battle over valuable land it owns. 

In November 2019, an Istanbul court ruled in favour of Halkbank in a lawsuit over a loan the state-run bank had given to the university, which was secured by collateral in the form of one of Sehir's campuses in Istanbul. 

An earlier administrative decision, signed of by Davutoglu, had granted the university title over a disputed portion of land donated to the campus, and this land, in turn, was used to secure the 400m Turkish lira loan (around $70m at the time). 

However, a reversal by a lower administrative court in March 2019 had stayed the approved land donation, which should have given the university clear title. 

In October 2019, one month after Davutoglu's resignation from the AKP, Halkbank had declared the collateral for the loan worthless based on the administrative stay, and proceeded to freeze the university’s accounts. 

Despite having millions of dollars in income, the university found itself unable to pay the salaries of its professors nor make the financial transactions necessary for the scholarships it provides for thousands of students. 

The timing of the asset freeze, soon after Davutoglu withdrew from the AKP, led to speculation that the action was politically motivated, with the state-run Halkbank acting at the behest of the government.

Halkbank denial

Also in November, the Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, issued its final decision that the disputed land must be returned to the government because it was inappropriately granted to the university.

In the same month, Davutoglu condemned the government for politicising the whole process and likened its efforts to a military coup that toppled a previous government during the 1990s.

Halkbank denied all charges in a media statement at the time of Davutoglu's remarks.

It said all actions were taken because Sehir has failed to make its payments.

In December, control of the university was transferred from BISAV to Marmara University, a public institution also in Istanbul. 

The Turkish state then took control of BISAV itself in January by installing three trustees to manage it.

Davutoglu's motives questioned

Davutoglu hit out at Erdogan on Tuesday "for making claims against the university he knows full well aren't true".

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The former prime minister described the order as an act of "political revenge" that would affect thousands of students.

"This is a blow to one of Turkey's finest quality education institutions, or more precisely to Turkey's future, to young people's dreams and Turkey's education system as a whole," Davutoglu said.

But government sources blame Davutoglu for using the university for what they say were his own political agenda.

“This is a commercial matter. The university didn’t care much about its debts because they thought they had Davutoglu’s backing,” one source with close ties to the Turkish government told Middle East Eye in November

"Eventually the bank is asking for its money back. Now he (Davutoglu) presents this picture as if it is all political.”