Turkey Pulse

Trial of Turkish hospital staff begins as sex abuse crisis deepens

Article Summary
Two health workers are on trial for failing to notify police about 115 pregnant teenagers, many of them underage, in what feels to many Turks like a child abuse epidemic.

The trial began today of two Turkish health professionals accused of failing to notify police about the presence of 115 pregnant teenage patients at an Istanbul hospital they helped run. The case has sparked national fury because many of the girls were allegedly under 15, the minimum age of consent in Turkey, reported the independent online news publication BiaNet.

The patients allegedly included at least 30 Syrians. A hospital employee who blew the whistle claimed that all of the girls had been admitted to the Kanuni Sultan Suleyman hospital between January and May 2017, leaving the public wondering how many more like them may have walked through its doors.

In January, the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) demanded that parliament investigate the affair. HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, who introduced the motion, told Al-Monitor that it had come to naught. "Our party has been at the forefront of efforts to mobilize the parliament in such matters, but the government has blocked our every move," she said.

Syrian refugees are particularly vulnerable, and there has been a steady flow of allegations of Syrian girls being sold off as second wives or sexually abused in refugee camps and elsewhere. In May, a 2-year-old Syrian girl was hospitalized in the southern province of Antalya after she was sexually assaulted. Three suspects were detained in connection with the case.

HDP lawmaker Dirayet Tasdemir introduced a separate motion demanding that Family Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya disclose whether the ministry was engaged in any special effort to prevent abuse of Syrian children.

The defendants in the Kanuni Sultan Suleyman hospital affair, identified solely by their initials given the sensitive nature of the case, claimed they were innocent. One of them insisted he had been framed by the so-called Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO), a reference to the followers of Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Sunni preacher who is accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Tens of thousands of police officers, judges, academics, journalists and others have been purged, jailed or both for alleged links to FETO. But the net has been cast so wide as to make the entity a convenient scapegoat to settle personal scores. For example, Yeni Asir reported that a woman who was left by her husband in the western township of Buca sought revenge by planting books written by Gulen in his house. She then tipped off police, saying he was a Gulenist; her husband spent six months in prison before the truth was revealed.

The country’s nerves have been on edge ever since the bodies of two little girls who had gone missing were found this week, amid fears they had been raped. Initial autopsy reports revealed one had been tortured and strangled. The other, just 3 years old, had died of starvation.

But it would have not been surprising if they had been sexually assaulted. Abuse of minors is a national scourge.

According to a 2017 study carried out by the Turkish Psychiatrists Association, one in every three Turkish children has been affected by sexual assault, and critics charge that Turkey’s religiously conservative government is not doing enough. It didn’t help that a former Cabinet minister for Family Affairs dismissed as a “one-off incident” the alleged rape of nine underage boys in accommodations said to belong to individuals connected with the ENSAR foundation, a religious educational institution. The scandal erupted in 2016 amid claims that ENSAR was being promoted by Erdogan’s younger son, Bilal.

Opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet took the government to task today, claiming that there had been a 700% rise over the past decade in the number of reported cases of sexual abuse of minors. Of a total of 40,266 cases brought, only 13,968 resulted in convictions, Cumhuriyet reported.

In April, the ruling Justice and Development Party-dominated parliament agreed on draft legislation stiffening penalties for child sex offenders. Its signing into law was postponed until after the June 24 elections. The legislation will thus have to be voted on by the newly elected parliament.

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Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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