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Turkey doctors say police, govt harassed them

Friday - 1/10/2014, 4:04am  ET

FILE - In this May 31, 2013, file photo, riot police use tear gas and pressurized water to quash a peaceful demonstration by hundreds of people staging a sit-in protest to try and prevent the demolition of trees at Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey. During the height of Turkey's summer of upheaval, more than a dozen Turkish doctors interviewed by The Associated Press say authorities assaulted them with tear gas, pressured them to reveal the names of patients and ignored calls for resources. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)

DESMOND BUTLER
Associated Press

ISTANBUL (AP) -- It was the height of Turkey's summer of upheaval, and riot police were hammering protesters. The tear gas at Istanbul's Taksim Square was so thick that doctors trying to treat the wounded in a makeshift clinic could barely breathe or see.

So a group of doctors set off to find relief in a nearby hospital. They turned into an alley and came face-to-face with police, just yards away. The officers took aim, lifted their guns and launched tear gas canisters straight at the medics in their white lab coats. "It was clear that we were doctors," Incilay Erdogan said to The Associated Press.

While some medics this summer complained of mistreatment as they treated protesters against the Turkish government, the extent of the harassment has now become much clearer. In interviews with The Associated Press over the five months since, more than a dozen doctors said authorities had assaulted them with tear gas, chased and beat protesters in hospitals, pressured them to reveal the names of patients and ignored calls for more resources, including ambulances.

Nor has the crackdown stopped since. A prosecutorial indictment signed last month against a doctor and a medical student, seen by the AP, starkly contradicts a government statement that it would take no action against medical personnel giving care to protesters. And a bill passed by the Turkish parliament last week, and now before Turkish president Abdullah Gul, could give authorities new powers to prosecute doctors for giving unauthorized care, critics say. The bill follows more recent anti-government protests in recent weeks over a bribery scandal that forced four government ministers to step down.

The medical community says its professionals are hidden victims of a violent lashing out against dissent that has undermined the reputation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a democratic reformer. The United States and European powers see Erdogan as a vital strategic partner, especially in dealing with the Syria conflict, but have become alarmed by what looks like a deepening disregard for human rights.

The Ministry of Health defended its position in a statement to the AP: "It is greatly unfair to claim that there were shortfalls in the provision of health services during the protests."

The Turkish national police also noted in a statement the challenge posed by the sheer size of the demonstrations, which it described as 5,532 protests in 80 provinces with the participation of more than 3 million people from May to September. The statement said inspectors have been appointed to probe instances where unnecessary force may have been used but denied that doctors were specifically targeted.

"Our security units have not intervened against doctors who are exercising medical profession or those exercising their rights to peaceful demonstration," it said.

Many doctors, including some interviewed for this story, admit to sympathies with the protesters, and some took part in protests without medical garb when they were not treating patients. However, Turkish and international human rights groups say the Erdogan government's clampdown on doctors still violated international codes designed to protect medical personnel in conflicts. The neutrality of doctors while treating the injured in conflicts dates back to the ancient Hippocratic Oath, and is codified in international law and human rights treaties, many of which Turkey has signed.

"Something happened during the protests in June that usually doesn't happen in war," said Dr. Selcuk Atalay, the general secretary of the Turkish Medical Association's Ankara chapter.

The police told the AP that claims by the medical association and NGOs about abuses against doctors were "based on insufficient information and don't reflect the truth."

In late May and June, hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets calling for greater democratic freedoms, in protests initially sparked by opposition to government plans to develop Gezi park in downtown Istanbul. Police fired water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas, and beat protesters with batons, resulting in thousands of injuries and five deaths. Many injuries and at least one death were caused by direct hits from tear gas canisters fired from close range at high speed, although the doctors who say they were targeted in this way were not seriously injured.

Doctors at Taksim Egitim ve Arastirma Hospital and the German Hospital -- both near the center of the Istanbul protests -- said tear gas was sometimes fired directly at the emergency room doors, seeping inside and hampering their work treating the injured.

One day, about half a dozen protesters ran into the emergency room at Istanbul's German Hospital, followed closely by riot police, according to the doctor in charge, Serdar Cifcili. After one protester locked himself into an observation room, police broke down the door and beat him, Cifcili said. He said he heard two other protesters, including one woman, being beaten elsewhere in the hospital. Another time, he said, the radiology department shut down for hours because of tear gas, creating long waits for patients needing X-rays.

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