Turkey Takes a Page Out of the Middle Eastern Dictator Playbook By Kidnapping Doctors and Nurses

This article was co-authored with Joshua Bancroft.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s government crackdown on Turkish protestors has now put medics squarely in danger. Five doctors and three nurses have reportedly “gone missing” after treating protestors and the government on Friday demanded that the Turkish Medical Association provide authorities names of medical professionals who had treated protestors.

These actions violate fundamental principles of human rights and longstanding traditions, including the Hippocratic Oath and the First Geneva Convention (1864, revised 1949), which mandates care of soldiers regardless of allegiance and prohibits attacks on medical personnel. 

The Turkish crackdown has drawn international condemnation and are eerily similar to the targeting of medics in Bahrain and elsewhere. In Bahrain, more than 50 medics were arrested following the Kingdom’s 2011 uprising. They were forced to sign false confessions, tried and convicted in show trials after providing protestors with medical treatment. The cases epitomized the depths to which Bahraini authorities would sink to silence dissent. They also captured the world’s attention and catapulted the medics into instant fame as some of the most recognizable political prisoners in the world.

Shortly after the Bahraini medics’ arrests, Human Rights First joined an international campaign to have them released and acquitted. We lobbied the U.S. and Bahraini governments, attended the trials of accused medics, took their testimony, and brought several of those facing charges to meet with senior U.S. government officials in Washington D.C.

After this international outcry, most were acquitted on appeal or are now out of prison having served their sentences. Several, however, still remain in prison, including Dr. Ali Alekri and Ibrahim Demastani. Just this past weekend, on June 16, nurses Hassan Matooq and Haleema al Sabagh had their appeals rejected. They will remain in prison to serve their sentences. 

Bahrain’s treatment of medics demonstrates the need for greater protections for medical professionals treating dissidents, for stronger adherence to the principle of medical neutrality that is protected under law, and for regimes to be held accountable when they fail to uphold these statutes. These concerns recently led Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) to reintroduce the Medical Neutrality Protection Act, legislation that would direct the U.S. Department of State to investigate and publicize foreign governments’ violations of medical neutrality. The bill, reintroduced last month, would also impose U.S. aid and visa restrictions on violators.

As evidenced by Rep. McDermott’s legislation, Bahrain’s crackdown on medics continues to draw criticism from leaders around the globe and it has fueled concerns about the Kingdom’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. If Bahrain was betting that the crackdown on medics would silence protestors by instilling fear of untreated injury or death, it was wrong. To this day, medics in Bahrain continue to treat injured protestors in unofficial home first aid posts. They operate in defiance of the authorities and with a renewed sense of urgency to draw widespread attention to their government’s human rights violations.

Does Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan think his crackdown on medics will be different? All evidence would suggest that this is a bet not worth making. The world is watching and it will not turn its back on medics imprisoned and persecuted for doing their job. Just ask Bahrain.

Brian Dooley is Director of the Human Rights Defender Program at Human Rights First. Joshua Bancroft is a summer fellow within that program.

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Brian Dooley

Brian Dooley is the Director of the Human Rights Defenders program at Human Rights First. Prior to joining Human Rights First, Brian worked for U.S., Irish and international NGOs. Most recently, Brian led Amnesty International’s work on partnering with national NGOs in the global South.

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