TTB head Rasit Tükel

Turkish Doctors Arrested After Criticism of Syria Attack

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ISTANBUL (Financial Times) — Police arrested senior members of the Turkish Medical Association on Tuesday, January 30, days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan branded the group “terrorist lovers” for calling for a halt to Ankara’s military offensive in Syria. The detentions are part of a widening crackdown against criticism of Turkey’s incursion into the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region of north-west Syria.

More than 300 people have been detained for spreading “terror propaganda” on social media since the military operation began this month. Eleven arrest warrants were issued for members of the doctors’ union, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency, with police searches launched across eight provinces.

The group’s chairman, Rasit Tukel, and other members of the board were among those detained, the opposition MP Ali Seker said on Twitter.

The association’s lawyer, Ziynet Ozcelik, said that those arrested faced charges of “propaganda in support of a terrorist organization, and provoking the public.” The medical association, which represents 80,000 doctors, is one of a small number of organizations that have publicly voiced opposition to the offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia. It warned that conflict always causes damage to public health. “Every clash, every war, causes physical, psychological, social and environmental health problems and causes human tragedy,” it said in a statement published last week. It concluded: “No to war. Peace right now.”

After publishing its statement, the association said it been inundated with threats of violence via telephone, email and social media.

The New York-based Physicians for Human Rights group last week condemned the campaign of intimidation. “It is a bleak commentary on the state of affairs in Turkey that a group of doctors can’t make a peaceful statement without being targeted with physical threats and condemned by the head of state,” said Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights. “Medical professionals must have the freedom to call out threats to public health without fear of retribution.”

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The arrests will fuel concerns in European capitals about freedom of expression in Turkey.

Erdogan has been accused by European officials of becoming increasingly autocratic, particularly after more than 160,000 people were arrested, dismissed or suspended in the wake of a July 2016 coup attempt. Ankara launched the offensive in Afrin on January 20, with the aim of clearing the enclave of members of a Kurdish militia that it views as a terrorist organization. Five Turkish soldiers have been killed in the campaign, which is being spearheaded by Syrian rebels trained and equipped by Turkey.

Public criticism has been muted during the first 10 days of the operation. There is widespread public hostility in Turkey to Kurdish militants in Syria, who are closely linked to a group that has waged a violent insurgency inside Turkey for more than 30 years. Ankara fears that Syrian Kurdish militants will seek to create an autonomous region south of Turkey’s border Aside from the leftist, Kurdish-dominated Democratic People’s party (HDP), Turkey’s main opposition parties have lent their support to the incursion. So too have most mainstream media outlets, including newspapers that are often critical of the government. On Sunday, Erdogan slammed a group of academics, artists and journalists who signed a letter criticizing the operation, accusing them of being “servants of imperialism.”

“If you are lovers of peace, why did you traitors turn a blind eye while a separatist terror organization killed our police officers?” he said.

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