(Video above: Tear gas and water cannon outside of the German Hospital in June, 2013)
As we approach the first anniversary of the Gezi Protests, trials of protestors and others caught up in the Turkish government’s crackdown are picking up pace. Among those standing trial in a series of cases related to the Gezi Protests will be a number of health care providers. Subject to abuse during the protests and increased government control since then, this attack on medical professionals is one of the most absurd and tragic components of the Turkish government’s larger efforts to control every aspect of state structures and civil society.
In its landmark report on the Gezi, Amnesty called attention to the extent to which medical personnel 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 June 2. 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 June 15 and police removing masks from the faces of people inside and removing lotion used to treat exposure to tear gas.
- On June 14, 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.
Moreover, as reported by the Associated Press, Turkish authorities actually took steps to hinder medical care for 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…
Doctors in hospitals also told AP they felt pressure not to provide extra care to the protesters. A doctor at the government-run Taksim hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal, said he witnessed government inspectors reviewing security footage in the hospital to determine whether doctors and medical personnel had volunteered services outside shifts in the overwhelmed emergency rooms.
In its report on Gezi, Physicians for Human Rights concluded that Turkish police “attacked independent medical personnel who courageously provided care to the injured in accordance with international medical ethical standards and Turkish law.”
As I noted in a blog this past January, Turkish government steps to extend control over medical personnel have been deeply problematic. As noted in the AP story, medical personnel were investigated by the Ministry of Health for their actions during the protests.
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.
In January, to international opprobrium, the Turkish government passed a law which further criminalized restricted emergency medical care. Physicians for Human Rights issued a statement condemning it. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, and the World Medical Association (WMA) also spoke out against it.
Less than a month before the first anniversary of the Gezi Protests, the trials this week represent the latest step in a broad crackdown on dissent this past year. Yet there is something particularly pernicious about criminalizing care for the injured.
Dr. Vincent Iacopino, senior medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights, states:
Spontaneous medical relief efforts were provided in mosques, shopping malls, hotels – anywhere possible and only for as long as the need existed…The physicians who attended to injured demonstrators provided potentially life-saving triage and emergency care that likely prevented additional unnecessary injury and even death. Doctors should never be punished for following their professional and ethical duty of providing care without discrimination to those in need.
St. Lawrence University