‘Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment On A Massive Scale’

THE RECENT RELEASE OF the aptly-titled ‘Contempt for Freedom’ by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documents in great detail the disproportionate use of force by the Turkish state police in response to the anti-government protests this year. The unparalleled demonstrations in June were ignited by the ferocious police attacks on a sit-in in Taksim’s Gezi Park in late May. Over the course of one week, what began as a peaceful occupation to halt an unauthorized dig to make way for a controversial shopping mall, rapidly escalated into nationwide unrest, driven by shocking reports & images of excessive police action flooding social media, alongside a largely silent mainstream Turkish media &, not least, by an overly blunt reaction from the ruling AKP.

As the accompanying press release from the New York-based NGO outlines, police “attacked independent medical personnel who courageously provided care to the injured in accordance with international medical ethical standards and Turkish law.” In addition to violating the principle of medical neutrality — tantamount to a serious breach of the Geneva Conventions — PHR’s conclusion points to Turkish police deliberately firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters as a systemic mode of attack.

Published on Weds. 25.09.13, the 32-page report bases its findings on research conducted from 25 June to 2 July in İstanbul, the heart of the protests, & in the capital, Ankara. Working primarily with the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) & the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), the PHR team reviewed 169 cases of physical & psychological evidence, as well as interviewing 53 victims & witnesses of police violence. The damning conclusion:

Government forces in Turkey have engaged in unnecessary and excessive violence against protesters that constitutes ill treatment (cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment) on a massive scale and – in some cases – torture. The state has used tear gas as a weapon, at close range, directly targeting individuals, and in confined spaces; it has indiscriminately used rubber bullets and water cannons spiked with chemical agents (reportedly tear gas), as well as unjustified lethal force; it has detained and beaten hundreds of protesters after they were under police control; and it has intentionally targeted clearly identified medical facilities and medical personnel who attempted to provide emergency medical care as required by the Turkish penal code and Turkish law. Such acts of violence have been celebrated by Prime Minister Erdoğan as ‘legendary heroism’ rather than condemned and perpetrators held to account.

‘Contempt for Freedom’ also cites medical data from the TTB collected during June & July, listing over 8 thousand reported injuries, 61 who were “severely injured”, & 11 people who lost eyes due to direct hits from tear gas canisters (aimed with intent, in some cases). The PHR report also summarizes the five deaths known of at that time, according to TTB records & witness statements:

Ethem Sarısülük (26 years old) was reportedly shot in the head at close range by a police officer in Ankara during a demonstration on June 1, 2013 after the police were ordered by their superiors to retreat from the protesters.

Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20 years old), according to eyewitnesses, was killed on June 2, 2013 when a car (license plate: 61 ES 459) drove into the crowd at Kızılay Square in Ankara – an area that police had closed to traffic during protests. The Ankara Bar Association has filed a criminal complaint about the person who allegedly drove the car.

Ali İsmail Korkmaz (19 years old), according to eyewitnesses, was attacked and beaten by unidentified civilians (allegedly plainclothes police) on June 2 in Eskisehir while running away from the police. He suffered a brain injury and subsequently died on July 10, 2013. The cause of death was reported as cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) due to blunt trauma to the head. Video footage of the beating was reportedly recorded by a local hotel and submitted to police, but the police claim that the video was irreversibly damaged. [Update: the video footage, apparently deleted, has been retrieved since PHR’s visit & the alleged attackers, including four policemen, are now on trial.]

Abdullah Cömert (22 years old) died from injuries sustained to his head on June 4, 2013 in Antakya. The autopsy report indicated that Cömert had received two blows to the head. [A] review of the autopsy report by Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı ([TİHV] executive board, chairperson; professor in forensic medicine, Istanbul University; member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims) indicated that the cause of death was due to head trauma from a tear gas canister fired at close range.

Zeynep Eryaşar (55 years old) attended the protests and subsequently had a heart attack and died from exposure to tear gas chemicals in Avcılar in İstanbul on June 15.

At the core of the report, though, lies gross violations of medical neutrality by the Turkish state police. PHR outlines four prerequisites for the internationally recognized principle of medical neutrality to be met: (1) The protection of medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport from attack or interference; (2) Unhindered access to medical care and treatment; (3) The humane treatment of all civilians; (4) Nondiscriminatory treatment of the injured and sick. As the report highlights, the result of the Turkish Health Ministry’s own failing to provide emergency care in that ambulances were routinely blocked from entering protest areas, thousands of voluntary medical personnel responded to the call of duty by setting up mobile infirmaries to treat the injured. The astounding degree to which these makeshift clinics came under systematic attack — from police throwing tear gas bombs & firing tear gas canisters like bullets — reads like a description of a war scene, not civil unrest in a supposedly stable, democratic country.

In fact, as one doctor responsible for medical coordination in İstanbul recounted, mobile infirmaries were often moved when possible for fear of “police reprisals”. It’s easy to understand why from the numerous events described in the report. For instance, as anesthesiologist & critical care physician Dr. Savaş Çömlek recounted on providing medical assistance in early June:

After the tents in Gezi Park were burned, I went to provide medical care. Police were shooting tear gas right at people in the crowd, using the canisters as if they were rifles. Many were injured and calling for a doctor. It was a very small, closed area. Police did not leave space for people to run away so people were stuck in the closed area. I tried to talk to some police to ask them to stop because people were injured. They did not stop, so I helped some injured people go into the Divan Hotel.

Several people had been injured by tear gas canisters. One person’s head was lacerated by a tear gas canister, somebody had a heart attack, and another was suffering from a severe asthma attack. A lot of people were in shock and panic. The police did not allow ambulances to pass. We called 112 for ambulances, but none came. We were able to send some injured people to Şişli Hospital by taxi.

Meanwhile in Ankara, doctors & nurses fared no better. Dr. Hande Arpat, who coordinated infirmaries across the city, told PHR of her emergency medical team’s own encounter with the police:

The police shot gas canisters outside on the street. Then the street was blocked. We were anticipating a raid, but we reassured ourselves that even in war doctors are allowed to provide medical treatment, so why would the police raid us? But the police started to swarm into the building [where the emergency medical center was located]. They shot tear gas at the infirmary entrance and then entered…. We were choking with tear gas. We just were wearing surgical masks. Two of our colleagues went out in white coats and identification showing they were doctors. They were beaten harshly and insulted. Then the police disappeared.

Founded in 1986, PHR’s self-declared remit is to use “medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations.” With over 50 cases similar to the above, ‘Contempt for Freedom’ amounts to a gruesome but necessary read. It is, to date, the most incisive English-language documentation of the widespread human rights abuses that took place here earlier this year. Despite the one week limitation of time available to the PHR research team, they managed to record & verify a wide range of abuses to make available to the international community. Although the extent of brutal police attacks during the (still ongoing) anti-government protests is well-known here in Turkey — by those who want to know, or have experienced it firsthand — it is a significant step towards, perhaps, one day holding the ruling AKP accountable for condoning such excessive & illegal use of force by the state police.

The full report can be read/downloaded here.

Related Links:

PHR Documents Unlawful Use of Force and Tear Gas and Attacks on Medical Community in Turkey — PHR Press Release (Also available in Turkish here)

TTB Report On The Assessment Of Health Problems In Persons Exposed To Chemical Riot Control Agents — June Report from Turkish Medical Association, in English (Also available in Turkish here)

Closest Witnesses to the Events are Physicians — September Statement from the Turkish Medical Association & Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, condemning police violence & ongoing political pressure on the medical profession in the wake of the protests.

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