Turkish authorities detained senior members of the Turkish Medical Association on Tuesday who have spoken out against Ankara’s military offensive in a Syrian Kurdish enclave, calling it a "public health threat," the country’s state-run media reported.
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Rasit Tukel, the chief of the Turkish Medical Association, and seven other association members were detained in police operations in Ankara and other cities for breach of Turkey’s anti-terror laws, Anadolu Agency reported. It said prosecutors had issued warrants for 11 members of the association.
The doctors' association, of which most Turkish doctors are members, has faced a range of threats since their statement was released last week, during an ongoing military operation by Turkish troops in northern Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the members of the association of betrayal and of being “terrorist lovers” after their organization warned of humanitarian costs of the operation into the enclave of Afrin, launched on January 20.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which it is fighting in Afrin, to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdish rebels inside Turkey.
The government has cracked on criticism of the offensive, warning that people engaging in “terrorist propaganda” would be prosecuted. As many as 311 people have been detained in the past week for allegedly engaging in “terrorist propaganda” through social media postings that were critical of the military operation, authorities said Monday.
The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has slammed the detentions as the Turkish government’s “witch hunt against critics.”
Ali Seker, a medic and a member of parliament from the main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP), denounced the detentions, likening the move to the 1980 military coup, when doctors faced arrest by the authorities. "Fascism is targeting this country again," Seker wrote on Twitter.
The World Medical Association (WMA), which represents doctors worldwide, condemned the arrests in a statement on Tuesday.
"We call on the Turkish authorities to immediately release the physician leaders and to end the campaign of intimidation," WMA president Yoshitake Yokokura said.
"The WMA fully supports our Turkish colleagues in their public statements that war is a public health problem. The WMA has a clear policy that physicians and national medical associations should alert governments to the human consequence of warfare," the statement said.
"The Turkish government should be protecting the Turkish Medical Association from threats of violence. Instead it is detaining doctors from their beds this morning on false accusations of 'terrorist propaganda,'" said Andrew Gardner, a researcher at human rights group Amnesty International.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the operation has so far claimed the lives of 61 civilians in Afrin, three in Turkish towns along the border and five Turkish soldiers.