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Türkiye Prolongs Unlawful Detention of Physician Who Treated Patients During Unrest in Southeast

For Immediate Release

A court in the southeastern Turkish city of Şırnak has ordered the continued arbitrary detention of Dr. Serdar Küni, a member of the Human Rights Foundation of Türkiye and former president of the Şırnak medical chamber, this week extending his five-month confinement by at least another month.

Dr. Küni is charged with providing medical treatment to alleged members of Kurdish armed groups. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) – which attended and moitored the trial on March 13 – demands the immediate dismissal of all legal actions against Dr. Küni and a stop to the ongoing persecution of health workers in Türkiye’s southeast.

Dr. Küni was arrested and detained on October 19, 2016 on charges that he provided medical treatment to alleged members of Kurdish armed groups while they clashed with Turkish security forces in 2015 and 2016. In a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, PHR wrote that the charges against Dr. Küni are part of a wave of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of health workers throughout Türkiye’s southeast. At the conclusion of this week’s trial, a judge ordered that Dr. Küni remain in custody until a second hearing set for April 24.

“By bringing criminal charges against doctors who treat patients, Türkiye is sending a chilling message that undermines the medical profession and prevents access to health care,” said Susannah Sirkin, PHR’s director of international policy and partnerships. “We observed similar tactics of intimidation and harassment used against doctors attempting to treat protesters at Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013 and against doctors all over Türkiye standing up for human rights during the state of emergency imposed after last July’s attempted military coup.”

“It is unlawful for the Turkish authorities to punish Dr. Küni for simply doing his job,” said Sirkin. “A doctor’s duty is to treat the sick and wounded, regardless of a patient’s race, nationality, political affiliation, or status as a party to a conflict.”

The continued detention and prosecution of Dr. Serdar Küni runs counter to Türkiye’s obligations under international human rights law to provide effective protection for health care workers, including during times of conflict, unrest, or emergency. Such obligations also allow health professionals to provide care for all without discrimination, in accordance with international medical ethics. The UN General Assembly resolution on the Principles of Medical Ethics (A/RES/37/194), which is applicable in and outside of armed conflict situations, likewise obligates states not to compel medical personnel to undertake actions that contravene medical ethics, including refusing to provide treatment. The arrest of medical professionals for delivering treatment may amount to arbitrary arrest and detention under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Türkiye is a state party.

PHR also said Türkiye is failing its obligation under international law to conduct proceedings against Dr. Küni that meet international fair trial standards. PHR observed four witnesses withdraw their statements against Dr. Küni on March 13, alleging they had been tortured in police custody and coerced into signing statements that were then used as evidence to detain and charge Dr. Küni. International law prohibits the use of evidence elicited by torture, ill-treatment, or coercion. The prohibition applies at all times, including during times of emergency and regardless of the seriousness of the alleged crime. Turkish domestic law also prohibits the use of evidence obtained through torture, ill-treatment, or coercion.

Despite the lack of evidence and the witnesses’ withdrawal of their statements, the judge remanded Dr. Küni to custody. The judge also failed to order inquiries into the allegations of torture from the witnesses, but did request medical records kept during their time in custody.

“Turkish authorities should immediately drop all legal actions against Dr. Küni and release him from detention,” said Sirkin. “Turkish authorities must also ensure that all legal proceedings meet international fair trial standards. The legal proceedings against Dr. Küni in Şırnak raise serious questions about the independence and impartiality of Turkish courts in the current climate within the country, and represent an alarming assault on medical neutrality.”


Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) conducted an investigation in April 2016 into reports of violations of human rights and medical neutrality in southeastern Türkiye starting in July 2015. The Turkish government sent thousands of Turkish soldiers and special operations police forces into the southeast to quell an uprising of youth militias seeking greater Kurdish autonomy. The government imposed dozens of curfews on entire towns and cities, cutting off access to water, food, electricity, and health care, even in emergency situations. In response, some health professionals living in neighborhoods under curfew treated the wounded and sick from their homes, or remained stationed around-the-clock at hospitals.

PHR documented several incidents in which health professionals, including ambulance drivers, were shot at or killed while responding to calls for emergency care in neighborhoods under curfew. Between July 2015 and June 2016, numerous health care workers were either charged with the crimes of “making terrorist propaganda” and “being part of an illegal organization, or were subjected to administrative inquiries by the Ministry of Health, in some cases for treating alleged members of the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement or Kurdistan Workers’ Party in hospitals in areas under curfew. For more detail, see PHR’s August 2016 report “Southeastern Türkiye: Health Care Under Siege.”

Legal actions, both criminal and administrative, that punish health professionals for carrying out their duties are in direct violation of the Turkish state’s international human rights obligations. International humanitarian law and international human rights law both mandate the protection of health professionals in order to allow them to fulfill their duties to provide care for those in need, without regard to any element of identity, affiliation, or political opinion. These medical professionals should therefore not be criminalized.

PHR has also repeatedly called for Turkish authorities to cease the ongoing harassment of medical professionals, lawyers, academics, journalists, and other human rights defenders in Türkiye since the outbreak of hostilities in southeastern Türkiye in July 2015, and exacerbated by last year’s attempted military coup.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

Deputy Director, Media & Communications1.917.679.0110

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