Human Rights in Turkey

Targeting medical personnel in Turkey [updated, January 17]

© Tolga Sezgin / NarPhotos Used by permission

One of the most shocking aspects of Turkey’s violent crackdown on peaceful protest has been the willingness of authorities to target medical personnel.  Since then, not only have authorities not been held responsible, but the government has moved to increase legal pressure on medical personnel.

Amnesty has played a central role in researching this abuse.  In its report on the Gezi Protests, Amnesty researchers describe in detail the extent to which those caring for the injured were themselves subject to police abuse.

– In Izmir doctors reported that the health clinic in the building of the Izmir Medical Association was raided by police on the night of 2 June. Dr. Özlem Aydın, a doctor staffing the clinic who complained to the police about the raid was reportedly hit with a truncheon, sustaining head injuries.

– In Ankara, on the same evening, three raids were made by police on health clinics across the city. A doctor told Amnesty International “Anyone wearing a white jacket became a target that weekend. We made a decision not to wear them.”

– Doctors told Amnesty International that riot police fired tear gas at the window of the clinic, breaking the glass and filling the building with tear gas. Police reportedly beat people running out of the building due to the tear gas.

– In Istanbul, tear gas was repeatedly used at the entrance of or inside makeshift health clinics preventing the treatment of injured people. Reports and video footage show police firing tear gas and pressurized water at the entrance of the makeshift health clinic at the Divan Hotel on 15 June and police removing masks from the faces of people inside and removing lotion used to treat exposure to tear gas.

– On 14 June, the Minister of Health stated that the makeshift health clinics were illegal and that medical personnel could face criminal investigation as a result for providing emergency health care there.

Unfortunately, the abuses of this past summer are not the final chapter of this sad story.  As a recent article by Suzan Fraser and Berza Simsek  for the Associated Press describes the on-going abuse:

Nor has the crackdown stopped since. A prosecutorial indictment signed last month against a doctor and a medical student, seen by the AP, starkly contradicts a government statement that it would take no action against medical personnel giving care to protesters. And a bill passed by the Turkish parliament last week, and now before Turkish president Abdullah Gul, could give authorities new powers to prosecute doctors for giving unauthorized care, critics say. The bill follows more recent anti-government protests in recent weeks over a bribery scandal that forced four government ministers to step down.

The AP article is damning.  It suggests that, in addition to the abuses noted above, authorities actively limited medical services to protestors and has made efforts to punish medical personnel who did help the injured:

Repeated requests to the Ministry of Health to increase medical resources in the protest areas, especially ambulances, were ignored, according to the medical association’s Istanbul chapter. Instead, doctors had to reach out to hospitals and ambulance services run by the city’s municipalities, which operate independently.

The article goes on to describe the harassment of medical personnel since June:

Feray Kaya, a pediatric assistant who works in a government hospital, volunteered to treat the injured during the protests and helped to collect casualty data. After the protests subsided, Kaya received notices — one seen by the AP — that she was being investigated by the Ministry of Health. A letter from her hospital administration asks why she checked in on a protester brought to the emergency room after being hit in the head with a tear gas canister. A second letter from the ministry asks about her work setting up the temporary clinics.“Did you or did you not actually serve in these voluntary infirmaries?” the letter asks.

Kaya said she and other doctors who treated patients in the streets eventually removed lab coats and medical identification because they felt the gear was painting a bull’s-eye on them for police. “We started to feel like we were prey,” she said.

Other doctors, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, reported receiving similar letters. And in a June 13 letter seen by the AP, the Ministry of Health asked the medical association for the names of both doctors working at the makeshift clinics and the patients they treated. The association refused to provide information.

Soon after the bill was passed Physicians for Human Rights issued a statement condemning it and calling on President Gul not to sign it.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, and the World Medical Association (WMA) have also raised concerns about the bill.  According to a UN press release, “[both] Mr. Grover and the WMA have written individually to the Turkish Government expressing their grave concern about the requirements of Article 33 of the draft health bill, and called on parliamentarians to ‘scrap it.'”

The condemnation is worldwide and clear.  It is now up to Turkish authorities to do what is right.

Update January 17: Yavuz Baydar’s blog reports that President Gul signed this into law today.  Another black day for Turkey.

Howard Eissenstat
Department of History, St. Lawrence University