Arrest of Turkish professor raises pre-election pressure

Şebnem Korur Fincancı was charged with spreading terrorist propaganda after calling for inquest into army’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria

November 2, 2022
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The arrest of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) president is the latest government attempt to silence its civil society critics, according to activists bracing for a pre-election crackdown. 

Şebnem Korur Fincancı was arrested in the early hours of 26 October, after an interview with Medya TV – a channel linked to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – in which she called for an investigation into alleged chemical weapons use by the Turkish army in Syria. Turkey’s defence ministry has denied the allegations. 

Prosecutors initially charged Professor Fincancı with insulting the Turkish military, being a member of a terrorist organisation and making propaganda for a terrorist organisation, although the former two charges have since been dropped, according to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT). 

Professor Fincancı, who teaches and researches forensic medicine at Istanbul University, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for the same charge in 2018 while serving as HRFT president. “She is not sad,” said Vedat Bulut, the association’s secretary general. “She is familiar with this situation.” 

Prosecutors have demanded the entire TTB central council that Professor Fincancı chairs be dissolved, and elections held to replace them. “They want to close the organisation and change the law, giving less freedom and less autonomy. But constitutional law doesn’t give a way to them,” said Dr Bulut. 

He said prosecutors are pursuing a separate case that claims the TTB is supporting the PKK militant group – which is a designated terrorist organisation under Turkish, European and UK law – the sixth court case brought against the association or its leadership for political activities or statements. 

He said the charges against the association and Professor Fincancı were motivated by wider political reasons. “They are against TTB for a different reason: we are against privatisation of the health sector. We criticise private health sector bosses and companies and say everything should be for public health.” THE invited the Turkish government to respond to the claim. 

Outspoken academics and students are just one segment of a civil society that has suffered from Turkey’s drift towards authoritarianism under president Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party. The independence of Turkey’s judiciary was already in question in 2016, when the first signatories of the Academics for Peace petition were jailed for criticising military action in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish eastern regions. 

At the time, Mehmet Ugur, professor of economics and institutions at the University of Greenwich told THE that appeal courts “rubber-stamp the sentences delivered under high political pressure”. 

Academics have also faced arrest for more general opposition to the AK Party and the leadership of Mr Erdoğan. In 2017, 72 university staff were arrested and over 300 were fired for alleged links to the Islamist movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the government blamed for 2016’s coup attempt. 

Elçin Türkdoğan, a project coordinator for the HRFT, said freedom of expression was “getting worse day by day” ever since the heavy-handed eviction of protests opposing the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. “We are expecting an increase in [the] violation of freedom of expression in Turkey,” said Dr Türkdoğan, referring to the general election scheduled for June next year. 

A new controversial social media law allows the government to restrict online speech it deems “disinformation”. There are fears the new powers could stifle one of the few remaining critical forums in Turkey, which is ranked 149th out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. 

“We are not afraid of anything, because there is a constitution,” said Dr Bulut. “Maybe the government will change, and then everything will change,” he added, looking ahead to the elections.

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