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Turkey jails 45 students over 2012 anti-Erdogan protest

The convictions come amid widespread criticism of Erdogan's crackdown on civil liberties
Erdogan was prime minister at the time of the protest and became president in August 2014 (AFP)

A Turkish court jailed 45 students on Tuesday over a 2012 protest against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an Ankara university when he visited to celebrate a satellite launch, state media reported.

The students were convicted of violating laws on meetings and impeding public officials in their work after they demonstrated against Erdogan's visit to Middle East Technical University (METU).

Erdogan was prime minister at the time of the protest and became president in August 2014, extending his domination of the country.

The court in the capital Ankara sentenced each of the students to 10 months imprisonment, state-run news agency Anadolu said. 

Police used tear gas and water cannons during the clashes with protesters in December 2012, when Erdogan visited the campus to watch via a video link the launch of a Turkish earth observation satellite into orbit aboard a Chinese rocket.

The clashes caused huge controversy, with the opposition accusing the authorities of using heavy-handed tactics against a relatively minor demonstration.

Aykan Erdemir, a former lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), who criticised the government at the time, attacked the decision to jail the students. 

"It is sad to see that prison sentences continue to be the main response of the Turkish government to student criticism and protests," Erdemir told AFP, noting that the government had recently released 38,000 convicts to relieve pressure from Turkey's overcrowded prisons.

In June 2013, Erdogan survived one of the biggest challenges to his rule when opponents, many of them students, took to the streets to protest against the Turkish leader.

During the hearing, lawyers for the defendants insisted that the students had not committed any crimes and called for their acquittal, Anadolu reported.

Judge Avni Mis adjourned the sentencing for three students, whose lawyers made the request, to an unspecified date, the agency said without giving further details.

Opponents have accused Erdogan of undermining civil liberties and freedom of speech in Turkey, in particular after the 15 July failed military coup, which has seen tens of thousands dismissed from their jobs or detained.

On 1 September, a decree published in the Official Gazette announced the sacking of more than 10,000 public sector workers, ranging from academics to healthcare personnel.

In public universities, 2,346 academics were dismissed while the number of sackings by the health ministry stood at 1,825 including administrative and healthcare staff.

Over 800 soldiers were also dismissed, the defence ministry announced. Of those dismissed, 648 were already under arrest.  

Since the crackdown began, more than 80,000 people are estimated to have been arrested, dismissed or suspended from their jobs. These include soldiers, civil servants, academics, governors, prosecutors, judges, businessmen, diplomats, prison guards, football officials and even forestry officials. 

Many have had their assets frozen or confiscated shortly after their arrest or dismissal, although authorities promise that all those found innocent will eventually be allowed to return to work and clear their names.

Those suspended from the public sector continue to receive two-thirds of their salaries until investigations are complete. If reinstated they are reimbursed the remaining one-third. 

Authorities insist that Turkey is a democratic country and that the measures are intended to punish genuine crimes.

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