The workers, who are members of PSI affiliate the Trade Union of Employees in Public Health and Social Services (SES), were part of a volunteer ambulance service, tending to people in their basements during a 79-day army curfew, from December 2015 to March 2016. The authorities accuse them of siding with terrorists for trying to enter the area to save lives.
The blanket curfew, which restricted all movement across the city, was among the longest in modern times and was part of a wider Turkish Government action against PKK-linked fighters in the region. More than 355,000 people were displaced and at least 338 civilians were killed.
Sadık Çayan Mulamahmutoğlu, one of those facing charges, described how “as health workers we were called by citizens trapped in Cizre’s basements, asking us if they could drink their own urine. Their voices were broadcast on live TV, but no one was responding. This was the moment we knew we had to act.” Mulamahmutoğlu and his colleagues assembled a team of volunteer health professionals and travelled to the region to deliver urgent medical assistance.
Despite informing relevant authorities of their mission, the workers were detained by the Turkish Armed forces, restricted from providing care and now face imprisonment under anti-terrorist laws, accused of distributing propaganda, and membership of an illegal terrorist organisation.
Among those killed during the siege were dozens of children. Many other civilians died because of the lack of medical services. Human rights organisations have documented widespread abuses during the curfew including suspected extrajudicial killings and targeting of civilians.
Public Services International attended the court case as an international solidarity observer. Previously the Turkish government failed to respond to requests by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for an external investigation into the army operation in the region. The first hearing of the case began at 09.00am on 28 September 2018, before the 3rd Assize Court in Mardin, a South-Eastern city.
Speaking outside the hearing, PSI’s Health Officer, Baba Aye, said: “The labour movement across the world stands with these courageous workers who face imprisonment for doing their job; helping people in need.”
SES Co-president Gönül Erden, said: “This court case targets not only our colleagues but also our professional values and responsibilities as health officers. There is a crime in this case, yet the criminals are not our colleagues but those who are attempting to prosecute.”
Jan Willem-Goudriaan, General Secretary of the European Public Services Union (EPSU) said: “The Turkish authorities should stop prosecuting trade unionists and volunteers that seek to help workers and people in cities affected by violence and in which public services have been destroyed. We stand with our members for solidarity and peace, we want them to be acquitted from this unjust trial.”