publication date: Jun. 29, 2018

Turkish oncologist Murat Tuncer jailed

By Jordan Williams

Murat Tuncer, a pediatric oncologist and former rector of Hacettepe University has spent the past two months in a very uncomfortable place—the Sincan Prison in Ankara.  

The reasons for Tuncer’s arrest are unclear. Sources say prosecutors have not brought any charges against him.

In recent maneuvers, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—acquiring sweeping powers in his reelection—limited the authority of Parliament and eliminated the Office of the Prime Minister, thereby acquiring power to appoint ministers, judges and vice presidents.

Tuncer was an important figure in oncology in Turkey and worldwide, said Joe Harford, a former director of NCI’s Office of International Affairs. The imprisoned doctor was also responsible for Turkey’s Ministry of Health collaborating with WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the Middle East Cancer Consortium.

“He was at one point considered the ‘cancer czar’ of Turkey within the Ministry of Health, and was quite active in raising public awareness of cancer, moving Turkey toward less tobacco use and obesity, and in expanding both cancer registry and breast cancer screening across Turkey,” Harford said.

Ankara-based Hacettepe University has one of the foremost Turkish state-run medical schools, said Peter Boyle, president of the International Prevention Research Institute who knows Tuncer.

“In all the 15 years that I have known him, I have never heard one word from Murat about politics,” Boyle said to The Cancer Letter. “What I do know is that Murat is a good man, a good friend, has a closely knit family, practices his religion and has done many good things for the health of the population in Turkey.”

Tuncer, a specialist in pediatric hematology, served as Secretary General of the National Pediatrics Society and was an executive committee member of the Union of Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean Pediatric Societies, the Turkish Science Academy Cancer Committee, and the UNICEF National Committee.

Tuncer is not alone in his predicament. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, over 150,000 public officials—including over 5,800 academics—have been terminated without due process since the failed coup d’etat of July 2016.

Multiple Turkish media outlets report that Tuncer was arrested in April as a part of the government’s investigation into Hacettepe University. These reports state that the charges are criminal and specifically concern Teknokent AŞ, an affiliate of Hacettepe University.

Teknokent AŞ is a company that aims to “raise university-industry collaboration to its highest level and to support the establishment and growth of companies that use or produce advanced technology,” according to the English version of its catalog.

Efforts to reach the Embassy of Turkey in Washington, D.C. and the Ministry of Justice in Turkey by The Cancer Letter were unsuccessful.

Colleagues insist that Tuncer never talked politics. His focus was always on Turkish and global public health.

“He and I did not have discussions of his politics or mine,” said Harford, who is now president and CEO of SynerGene Therapeutics. “Having said this, it would not surprise me if his jailing had a political, rather than criminal basis.”

Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, said he has been friends with Tuncer for over 20 years.

“I’ve had many conversations with him, I have never ever heard him talk about politics at all,” Brawley said to The Cancer Letter. “And yet, my impression is that he is being held for political reasons.” He continues, “I’ve known Murat to be just a wonderful human being, a really nice guy, a great scientist, and a great advocate for science and public health.”

Tuncer has over 170 international publications, edited two international journals, four national textbooks and hundreds of scientific posters. After he left clinical practice, Tuncer served as the head of the Cancer Control Department of the Turkish Ministry of Health from 2000 to 2011.

The Cancer Letter approached Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Neither had any information on Tuncer’s imprisonment.

Readers who wish to make inquiries about Tuncer’s situation can contact the Ministry of Justice in Turkey at info@adalet.gov.tr or at +90 312 417 77 70, as well as the Ministry of Justice in Turkey’s Department of Human Rights at inhak@adalet.gov.tr or at +90 312 414 80 61.

Readers can also call the Embassy of Turkey in Washington, D.C. at washington@byegm.gov.tr  or at (202) 612-6808, or reach out to the Turkish Embassy in your country.

Copyright (c) 2018 The Cancer Letter Inc.