The use of the ‘terror’ label by Turkish authorities is sometimes so vague and indirect it is almost absurd. Let us leave aside the question of whether armed opposition to the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government is legitimate; leave aside the labelling of the legitimate parliamentary opposition as terrorists; even leave aside attempts to stifle journalists, activists and others who merely criticize the government with the same loaded word. For as the recent case against Turkish Medical Association (TTB) chief Dr Şebnem Korur Fincancı has proved, merely suggesting the government should face criticism, opposition or investigation is enough to be handed a conviction for terrorist propaganda.
This subtle distinction is worth reflecting on. Dr Fincancı did not go so far as to state that the Turkish Armed Forces had used chemical weapons in their military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, as representatives of the PKK’s armed and political wings have alleged. On the contrary, Turkey’s top forensic medical expert merely called for an independent investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in these cross-border operations. But this was enough to see Dr Fincanı sequestered in a Turkish jail cell, until finally being handed a jail sentence of 2 years and 8 months.
Speaking to press and supporters after her unexpected and possibly temporary release following the imposition of the sentence, Dr Fincanı made clear she was being targeted due to issues which reach beyond the Kurdish question, and her comments on the conflict in northern Iraq. “Expressing a scientific view is enough to land a person behind bars,” she said. “Those who do research have to go to prison.” Fincancı placed her case in the context of the government’s ongoing attacks against the TTB, which “told the truth, darkening the tableau the government painted. Because it exposed the collapse in the healthcare system for all to see.”
We are not speaking, here, about Kurdish rights alone. What is under threat in Turkey is the right to criticize the government at all – and more than that, the right to call for criticism, should it prove appropriate. Yet the Turkish government has not only targeted Fincancı, but made it clear that it will block any investigation into its controversial cross-border operations in Iraq, which certainly violate international law and have resulted in harm to local civilians. The deterioration of the public sphere affects underfunded Istanbul public hospitals just as much as it does the victims of Erdoğan’s foreign wars.
The fundamental principle of medical neutrality dictates that just as doctors must treat all patients equally and without discrimination on the basis of identity, ethnicity or political affiliation, so too must medical personnel be permitted to deliver care on a humanitarian basis. This is precisely why Financı’s case has brought condemnation by her colleagues in the medical field, with the World Medical Association, the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME), and International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims all lending their voices to calls for the trial against her to be quashed since, in the words of the CPME, “It is unthinkable that a doctor is imprisoned for defending international law.”
Financı’s comments were carefully and precisely non-partisan in character: she took no sides, but framed war as a public health issue, where medical personnel have not only the right but the responsibility to hold the government and armed forces to account for their actions. Nonetheless, her comments sparked a harsh response by Turkish prosecutors, as alert to the dangers of both institutional critique within the already-limited bounds of public discourse in Turkey as they are to the more radical opposition voiced by other actors. Fincancı’s brave stand is as essential to challenging autocratic rule in Turkey as the sacrifices made by outspoken Kurdish politicians.