Protests Erupt After Arrest Of Medical Leader In Turkey

On October 26th, 2022 the Turkish state media reported that the head of Turkey’s medical association, Sebnem Korur Fincanci, had been detained for calling for an investigation into claims that the Turkish army have been using chemical weapons against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq. According to the reports of international media including the BBC, Fincanci’s requests for an independent investigation originate from video material that media close to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) militant group published two weeks ago. Based on the footage she had seen, Fincanci believed that toxic gases affecting the nervous system had been used. PKK has identified 17 of its members who have been killed recently by such weapons in northern Iraq. Fincanci’s detention has erupted protests in several Turkish cities. According to Balkan Insight, last week police in Istanbul arrested 57 people who were protesting against Fincanci’s arrest.

Reuters describes that Turkish authorities have forcefully denied that the Turkish army has used chemical weapons and rejected the propositions of conducting an independent investigation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated after the release of the footage that Turkey’s armed forces have never used chemical weapons and that legal action would be taken against those who make such allegations. The defense ministry has also denied that the Turkish army had been using such weapons which have been prohibited by international law. According to the Turkish prosecutor, Fincanci is suspected of spreading terrorist propaganda and insulting the Turkish nation. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and international medical associations have condemned the arrest and requested Fincanci to be released immediately. Emma Sinclair-Webb from Human Rights Watch has described Fincanci to be the latest human rights defender in Turkey “who is put to jail based on bogus investigations against her for spreading terrorist propaganda.”

The use of chemical weapons in warfare is prohibited by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which is precisely why claims of this sort should always be carefully investigated especially given the long-standing Kurdish-Turkish conflict which has continuously intensified after 2015. What is more, by categorically denying the possibility of conducting an independent investigation into such claims, the Turkish government is in fact contributing to a growing sense of distrust regarding the Turkish state.

The PKK and Turkey have been in conflict since 1984 when the PKK waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for greater autonomy with the ultimate objective of establishing an independent Kurdish state. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have designated PKK as a terrorist organization. The Turkish army has been aiming to dislodge the PKK in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq where the organization is currently active. Francesco Siccardi writing for Foreign Policy depicts that there is currently a lot of dissatisfaction for Erdogan’s government in Turkey, mainly due to economic crises. He argues that Erdogan’s goal before the 2023 general elections could be to turn the Turkish citizens attention away from domestic problems to foreign policy. The Turkish government, during President Erdogan’s term, has been criticized by human rights groups for its authoritarian style of governance including limiting the freedom of the media and suppressing democratic discussion by misusing criminal charges and detention against individuals it wants to silence. Sebnem Korur Fincanci is a renowned forensic specialist and a human rights activist. She is in fact a former head of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. Fincanci and Turkish medical association have also criticized the way Turkish government has dealt with the Covid pandemic in Turkey which the medical association states is another reason for the authorities wanting to silence Fincanci.

The first step towards resolving the situation in a peaceful and democratic manner would be to release Fincanci and support freedom of the media and open discussion of the allegations that have been made. The Turkish government should allow an independent investigation to take place concerning whether chemical weapons have been used or not. However, it is unlikely that President Erdogan will allow such an investigation to take place during his government term. As Human Rights Watch speculates, in the run-up to the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, Turkey’s authoritarian politics will most likely remain the same to support Erdogan and his party to win the elections and remain in power.