Leading Turkish doctor convicted over call for chemical weapons inquiry
The head of Turkey's Medical Association was convicted of terrorist propaganda this week, after she called for an inquiry into an alleged chemical weapons attack against Kurdish separatists. It came as rights groups warn of an increasing legal crackdown on civil society ahead of polls this year.
In the face of a heavy police presence, doctors joined by civil society groups and medical associations from across the world gathered outside Istanbul's court house on Wednesday demanding the acquittal of Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of Turkey's largest doctors' union.
"What we hope today is the president of the Turkish Medical Association will be acquitted and be able again to speak freely and say what has to be said," said Dr. Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chair of the World Medical Association, in a speech to the demonstrators.
But to no avail. Fincanci, a prominent forensic doctor, was convicted of terrorist propaganda for calling for an independent inquiry into allegations that the Turkish army used chemical weapons against Kurdish separatist group the PKK in Iraq, after she was presented during a television interview in October with photos apparently showing dead militants.
The military vigorously denies using chemical weapons.
Free pending appeal
"This court case should never have happened; this is a scandalous verdict. She only expressed a scientific opinion. We will appeal," declared Ozturk Turkdogan, one of Fincanci's lawyers and co-chair of Turkey's Human Rights Association.
With Fincanci's sentence under three years, she was eligible for release. She had been in jail since October, when she was taken from her home by police in an early-morning raid.
She was freed on Wednesday while she appeals the verdict.
The arrest and conviction of Fincanci, a leading member of Turkish civil society, is seen by rights groups as sending a powerful political message.
"She made that statement in her capacity as a doctor who is a forensic medical specialist, who's looked at war crimes, who's looked at mass graves, who's looked at all sorts of things concerning chemical weapons as well," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"If someone like her can't question these things, who can?"
Any critical statements to the media risk being construed as an act of terrorism, according to Sinclair-Webb.
"It's a completely disproportionate response to prosecute someone like Sebnem Korur Fincanci," she said. "The larger issue here is that ... the government is very unhappy with Turkey's Medical Association because it has made critical statements about health issues."
As head of the physicians' union, Fincanci was an outspoken supporter of recent protests by doctors over conditions and the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With much of the media under government control, Turkey's civil society is one of the last remaining platforms critical of the authorities.
Philanthropist Osman Kavala, a prominent supporter of Turkish civil society, remains jailed in a case condemned nationally and internationally as politically motivated, a charge the government vehemently denies.
Rights groups warn pressure on civil society is likely to grow, with presidential elections due by June this year.
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"It will increase because now we are in the election process. So they will, of course, target NGOs, human rights defenders, or [anyone] outspoken," predicts Sinan Gokcen, head of the Turkish branch of the Swedish-based Civil Rights Defenders.
"There is no isolated case in Turkey," said Gokcen.
"All are linked, or all such cases are part of a bigger plan to silence the human rights community. Not only the human rights community, but civil society in general. Because in an authoritarian regime, in any country – in Russia, in Belarus, in Hungary, Poland – the first target of the authoritarian regime is the truth."
But Fincanci's release from jail is seen by her supporters as a small victory.
Speaking to a small crowd of friends and supporters outside prison, she struck a defiant note.
"Doctors who struggle not only within these borders but also for people all over the world, for all living species, for this earth, for the universe, are natural human rights defenders," she declared.
"Therefore, jailing them or shutting down their professional organization is out of the question. Such attempts can be made; they have been made before. But in the end, they had to give up. We will keep on struggling for them to give up again."
The small crowd outside the prison cheered and sang songs celebrating Fincanci's release.
But with many of her supporters belonging to Turkey's civil society, they remain aware they are increasingly living in the shadow of arrest and prosecution.