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Doctors treating injured demonstrators in Turkey are being arrested as criminals

Commentary: The clash between Hippocratic oath and the desire of a government to silence protestors.
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Turkish riot police push doctors and members of the press out of Taksim Square on December 8, 2013 in Istanbul, as the doctors attempted to speak to the press during a demonstration by members of the medical sevice. Turkish police blocked Taksim Square on December 8 to prevent a demonstration by the Chamber of Doctors protesting against Turkish heath policy. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

HENDERSON, Nevada — When Dr. Utku Gürhan volunteered to provide medical care to the injured during last summer’s protests in Turkey, he hardly imagined that he would require medical attention as a result.

He was an idealistic recent medical school graduate who volunteered at a makeshift infirmary near the heart of the protests in Ankara, treating people wounded by tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and police batons. His desire to help others was eclipsed by a police raid on the infirmary during which he was beaten, arrested and then detained for more than 36 hours.

Gürhan is one of many Turkish medical professionals targeted, intimidated and mistreated during the demonstrations. While the protests have diminished, government intimidation of health workers continues unabated.

The Turkish parliament this month accepted a health bill that criminalizes emergency medical care and the more than 2,000 year-old Hippocratic duty of providing care to those in need.

Instead of protecting those who help heal the sick and the wounded during times of need, the government is relentlessly going after them.

Legislators recently revised the bill to allow emergency care only “until the arrival of formal health services,” an outrageous restriction for many reasons. President Abdullah Gül has signed the bill into law.

Emergency care should be provided based on one’s urgent medical needs, not when and if medical vehicles arrive on the scene. The mere presence of a state ambulance at a demonstration could prevent independent medical care from being provided at a time it is most needed.

The vague and confusing language in the bill makes it unclear who could provide medical care, and could lead to arbitrary arrests of medical professionals.

Doctors like Utku Gürhan could be imprisoned for as long as three years and fined up to about $985,000 for providing essential medical services.

It is equally troubling that the new law conflicts with the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime for medical personnel to neglect their duty to provide emergency care to those in need.

The law would force health care workers to neglect their ethical duties and ignore patients requiring assistance, while the Penal Code makes such abandonment a criminal offense.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health and the World Medical Association recently warned of the chilling effect such a law would have on accessing medical care. Other leading medical groups also opposed the bill, including medical associations in England, Germany and Turkey, and the Standing Committee of European Doctors.

The intention of this bill is clear: to intimidate medical staff and the patients they treat, including thousands of anti-government protestors injured during the protests.

Doctors and other health workers have seen first-hand the impact of the recent government brutality; they have treated those injured by tear gas canisters, cared for victims beaten by police and healed those others with psychological wounds resulting from the violent crackdown.

Like journalists and humanitarian aid workers, they are often on the front lines during times of unrest and take great risks doing their jobs.

When I was in Turkey last summer, I learned that the Ministry of Health failed to provide emergency medical services to demonstrators and required medical personnel to report the names of the injured demonstrators, as well as those caring for them.

Such reporting requirements aided authorities in making arbitrary arrests of protestors and medical responders, like Gürhan.

He and other medical professionals should not have to worry about going to jail or paying fines simply for doing their jobs.

Every person should be able to see a doctor when they need one, whether they were injured in a car accident, a protest or a natural disaster. The Turkish government’s continued attacks on medical personnel demonstrate its willingness to compromise the health and well being of its citizens for the sake of silencing the opposition.

Dr. Vincent Iacopino is a senior medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). He lives in Henderson, Nevada.
 

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