Justice Denied for Turkey’s Doctors
Three judges sat on a raised platform in front of the courtroom. On the wall behind them were the words “Adalet Devletin Temelidir.” Justice is the foundation of the state.
In that courtroom in Şirnak, a town in Turkey’s restive southeast, no justice would be done that day.
On March 13, I traveled to Şirnak as part of a delegation of doctors, lawyers, and supporters from Turkey and around the world to witness the trial of Dr. Serdar Küni. A well-known doctor from the region, Dr. Küni is on trial for treating patients during the unrest last year in his hometown of Cizre. From the back row of the courtroom, I saw Dr. Küni’s face appear on a video monitor.
He sat in a prison cell in Şanlıurfa prison, more than 180 miles from the courtroom. His lawyer appeared next to him on the video screen. He smiled and waved at his friends, colleagues and family who had come to support him. His two teenage daughters and two of his brothers sat in the front row. The mood in the court room was confident, hopeful. The lawyers representing him were sure they would win his case and that Dr. Küni would go home to his family that same day.
Instead, during Dr. Küni’s 90-minute hearing, I witnessed just how severely the rule of law in Turkey has eroded.
Three of the four witnesses brought by the prosecution testified on camera from places where they themselves were imprisoned, and alleged torture while in custody. One showed a gaping hole in his mouth where he said his teeth had been knocked out during interrogation. Another told the court that an explosive vest was strapped to him, and that interrogators threatened to detonate it if he didn’t sign a statement providing evidence against Dr. Küni. All four witnesses withdrew their statements against Dr. Küni in open court.
Despite their stunning testimonies, the court sent Dr. Küni back to prison, where he has languished since October. He’ll remain imprisoned until his second hearing scheduled for April 24.
Dr. Küni is well-known and respected in the Kurdish-majority town of Cizre and has practiced emergency medicine and primary care in the Bişeng Public Health Center for 12 years. He is a former president of the Şirnak Medical Chamber and regional representative for the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, a distinguished national organization that treats torture survivors, works to prevent torture, and supports the ethical obligations of health personnel, especially in situations of conflict.
During the unrest in Cizre starting in July 2015, Dr. Küni treated the wounded and sick. In response, the Turkish authorities accused him of being part of a terrorist organization, arrested him, and threw him in prison. But Dr. Küni has committed no crime. The Turkish authorities have failed in their duty to protect doctors providing medical treatment to the wounded and sick in situations of violence. Treating patients, no matter who they are, is not a crime. Doctors in conflict situations are considered neutral parties and are afforded crucial protections, a principle enshrined in Turkish and international law.
When asked by the court to identify himself, Dr. Küni said, “I have always treated all people and supported their health. I have never violated medical ethics. I have never discriminated among my patients. I have respected the doctor-patient relationship. I have opposed torture. The indictment against me makes it seem like my health center was a secret place. But it is an institute of the state.”
In 2015 and 2016, as violence between Kurdish fighters and Turkish security forces roiled the southeast, curfews and roadblocks prevented the sick and wounded from accessing health care. Turkish officials and sometimes opposition fighters cut off water and electricity, stopped ambulances from reaching patients, and occupied hospitals, using them as staging grounds for attacks.
During the trial, Dr. Küni’s lawyer submitted PHR’s 2016 report, Southeastern Turkey: Health Care Under Siege, which documented these extensive violations of medical neutrality and underscored the imperative to respect health professionals’ ethical duties to treat the sick and wounded in such circumstances.
When a doctor like Serdar Küni is jailed for practicing medicine according to the highest standards of the profession, both his individual rights are violated and his patients harmed. By persecuting medical professionals for doing their duty, trust and confidence in the entire practice of medicine is eroded in Turkey and around the world. It is crucial for the world medical community to raise the alarm and step up our advocacy in the defense of our embattled Turkish colleagues.