Duvar EnglishHuman Rights Watch calls on Turkey to investigate claims of enforced disappearances
Turkish authorities should immediately halt investigations into doctors running three professional medical associations in Turkey’s southeast and eastern provinces, Human Rights Watch said on June 10.
"The authorities should respect both freedom of expression and the important role of healthcare worker associations in informing the public and protecting public health," it said on the investigations launched over the doctors' media interviews and social media posts relating to the COVID-19 outbreak in Turkey.
The doctors, who hold senior positions in professional bodies known as medical chambers, in Van, Mardin, and Urfa are probed for allegedly “issuing threats to create fear and panic among the public." The offense carries a possible prison sentence of between two and four years.
On May 4, a court in Urfa imposed a travel ban on Urfa Medical Chamber’s general secretary, Osman Yüksekyayla, and co-chair, Ömer Melik, and required them to sign in with their local police stations, pending the prosecutor’s completion of a criminal investigation.Human Rights Watch slams Turkey for 'failing to supply water' to northern Syria amid coronavirus pandemic
“The Turkish authorities criminally investigating medical chamber officials is not only an outrageous attack on free speech but impedes the fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and obstructs their legitimate work,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The investigations should immediately be dropped, and all conditions imposed on the doctors, including travel bans, lifted.”
After the Urfa Medical Chamber released the number of COVID-19 cases in the city on April 5, Melik was summoned to the police station on April 8. He was questioned about social media posts detailing the number of cases and deaths in the city, where the organization acquired this information, who posted them, and for what purposes.
On May 4, police again summoned and detained Melik with Yüksekyayla, and questioned them about six social media posts on the medical chamber’s official Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. Police asked the doctors about the posts on the situation in prisons, a request to test health workers, the exclusion of some health workers from bonus payments, deaths or infections of health workers from COVID-19, and the government’s failure to term COVID-19 an occupational hazard.Turkey must halt Syrian rebel abuses, Human Rights Watch says
The prosecutor defined these posts as “content that causes panic and fear among the public.” The doctors refuted the accusations, saying that the social media posts were to support their colleagues and inform the public. A court in Urfa released both doctors conditionally, imposing a travel ban and a requirement to sign in at the nearest police station once a month pending the completion of the prosecutor’s criminal investigation.
Dr. Özgür Deniz Değer, co-chair of the Van Medical Chamber, gave an interview to Mesopotamia News Agency on March 19 in which he criticized the authorities for failing to take early precautions against COVID-19 as well as the government’s failure to quarantine pilgrims returning from Mecca in March, or to protect prisoners.
Değer also criticized the authorities for not including the medical chambers in provincial councils established to fight the pandemic. Six days later, police summoned Değer and interrogated him about the interview on the grounds that it created “fear and panic among the population.” Değer refuted this allegation.
On May 4, police interrogated Değer again in connection to a tweet in which he asked Turkey’s health minister how many health workers had been infected with COVID-19.Turkish Medical Association urges halt to medical tourism
Dr. Osman Sağlam, co-chair of the Mardin Medical Chamber, gave interviews to Duvar on March 25 and to Mesopotamia News Agency on March 26. In both interviews, Sağlam suggested that the authorities were hiding information from the public and that doctors were hesitant to diagnose patients with COVID-19 due to pressure from the provincial health directorate to keep case numbers down. On March 28, the police summoned Sağlam to explain his media interviews. According to media reports, Sağlam too is under criminal investigation for “creating panic and fear among the public.”
Regarding self-censorship, a video of a doctor explaining a work plan to respond to COVID-19 cases and mentioning “thousands of cases” was secretly recorded and put on social media in March. The Ankara Ibni Sina University hospital announced an administrative investigation into the video and that it had issued the “required warnings.” The doctor later said she was talking about a hypothetical scenario and she apologized for “causing a negative perception in the society” and said she “would choose her words more meticulously in the future.”
The Turkish Medical Association has itself been strongly criticized by media outlets close to the government. News reports accused members of the Turkish Medical Association of being “in pursuit of chaos” after association officials said in a news conference during the early days of the outbreak that there were more cases of the virus in Turkey than the Health Ministry had revealed. Some media outlets claimed the association was more dangerous than COVID-19.Why is reopening Turkey wrong now?
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on April 29 that an estimated 7,428 health workers had been infected with COVID-19 in Turkey. On June 1, a member of the Turkish Medical Association’s COVID-19 Monitoring Board told Human Rights Watch that at least 41 health workers had died of COVID-19 while about 11,000 had been infected.
The investigations in Van, Urfa and Mardin are not the first time the Turkish government has targeted health workers and medical bodies for exercising free speech. In May 2019, an Ankara court convicted 11 Turkish Medical Association executives for “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “inciting public hatred” and handed out prison sentences ranging from one to three years for a statement titled, “War Is a Public Health Problem” in which they criticized Turkey’s January 2018 military incursion into the northern Syrian region of Afrin. The convictions are under appeal.
“Turkey’s government should see the important role the Turkish Medical Association plays in offering independent and credible opinions on all matters relating to public health,” Williamson said. “Official efforts to discredit and criminalize the association or its provincial affiliates, notably those in the mainly Kurdish southeast and eastern regions, undermine efforts to uphold public health and the right of medical professionals to do their job.”