A court in Istanbul ruled on Wednesday to release Dr Şebnem Korur Fincancı, Turkey’s top forensic medicine expert and chairwoman of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) from prison.
The release order came at the same hearing that the court sentenced Fincancı to 2 years 8 months and 15 days in prison. The top expert had been in pre-trial detention since late October on charges of terrorist propaganda, over her calls for an independent investigation into the Turkish army’s alleged use of chemical weapons in cross-border operations.
Fincancı was met with a crowd of supporters as she was released from the Bakırköy Prison at 18:00 local time, including MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP), trade union chairs, and representatives from international medical associations.
“We will do everything we can so all kinds of weapons can be prevented, prohibited, and eliminated,” Fincancı told reporters after leaving the prison. “It is our duty as human rights defenders and doctors to share what we have seen, whatever the truth may be. It is yours, to relay our words to the public. We will see who has fulfilled this responsibility and who has failed.”
The trial criminalised editorial policies of Medya Haber, the channel that aired the interview, Fincancı said. “And then charged me with that crime. That boggles the mind.”
“I can only be held responsible for my own crime, which appears to be upholding a duty towards humanity,” Fincancı said. “There have been colleagues who said war was a public health issue. Of course we prioritise human health. Of course we stand against war. It is not just humans. It is a responsibility for all to stand against such attempts that harm the planet we live on.”
During her testimony, Fincancı had said the trial aimed to “intimidate and silence” society. “After I gave that interview, nobody else could even say the words ‘chemical weapon’, proving this political atmosphere of fear. However, fear changes nothing.”
According to the TTB chair, the top medical organisation in the country was the “real target”. Fincancı said during the trial:
“The TTB is targeted because it demands equal, multilingual, quality healthcare for all for free. Because it prioritises public health. Because it objects to the commercialisation and privatisation of healthcare. Because it stands against ‘city hospitals’ that take 25 years of our future hostage. Because it defends the rights of doctors, and objects to low-quality medical education. Because it collected field data and produced supporting scientific evidence and told the truth, darkening the turquoise tableau the government painted. Because it exposed for all to see the collapse in the healthcare system.”
“Expressing a scientific view is enough to land a person behind bars,” Fincancı said, referring to her own comments made during an interview. “Those who do research have to go to prison. We are painted to be traitors to the fatherland. But I cannot abandon this country’s fate.”
“We stand against evil. This country has its own Eichmanns,” she said, citing the chief SS officer responsible for the implementation of the Holocaust.
“Why do Turkey’s prosecutors not wonder what happens at Turkey’s borders? Human rights defenders cannot be put on the stand for calling for investigations. If you silence seekers of justice via courts, you will destroy the law and create a criminal society,” Öztürk Türkdoğan, co-chair for the Human Rights Association (İHD) said during the trial.
“We are glad for the release, it was a surprise,” Lawyer Meriç Eyüboğlu told reporters after the trial. “But there was a sentence. We can’t say there are true judges in Çağlayan Court House still. On top of months of imprisonment over a non-existent crime.”
“It appears we as Şebnem Korur Fincancı’s friends will continue to meet here,” Eyüpoğlu said, referring to cases brought against the TTB after Fincancı’s arrest.
Fincancı’s conviction “is a miscarriage of justice”, the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME) said in a statement condemning the prison sentence, co-signed by the World Medical Association. Former CPME chairman Jacques de Haller had attended the hearing in person.
“European doctors are appalled by the conviction of Prof. Şebnem Korur Fincancı,” the top European organisation’s current president, Dr Christiaan Keijzer, said, calling for the court to overturn the sentence. “It is unthinkable that a doctor is imprisoned for defending international law.”
“The verdict confirms our grave concern over the continued judicial harassment of doctors in Turkey. The autonomy and independence of the medical profession benefits all of society and must be safeguarded,” Keijzer said.
“The freedom of medical organisations to speak publicly about health matters, including public health, is essential for a quality, credible healthcare system: this is by no means ‘overstepping their competences’! It is also known as ‘medical autonomy’, it must be defended,” de Haller said in an earlier tweet.
Fincancı facing trial for calling for an independent investigation is “a clear abuse of the judicial system”, Amnesty International Turkey said.
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) said Fincancı’s conviction had been “on bogus charges”.
“We support her appeal, and call for an end to ongoing judicial harassment of Turkish Medical Association,” IRCT said.