Turkey sees merit in jailing children

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey – If Turkish prosecutors have their way, Hebun Akkaya, a timid 16-year-old with a hesitant manner, could spend seven years in jail for having joined a demonstration a year ago in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Akkaya has already spent 10 months in jail awaiting trial, although he was recently released on bail pending an appeal.

His crime? Protesting the prison conditions of Adbullah Ocalan, the jailed head of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

While the European Union and the United States have designated the PKK a terrorist organization, they have a substantial support base in Diyarbakir and throughout the predominantly Kurdish southeast. 

In the past few years — as part of its push for European Union membership — Turkey has updated its penal code to more closely reflect international standards. But in 2006, the country took a step backwards with an amendment to the country’s anti-terror law that made it possible to try minors between the ages of 15 and 18 when the crime is deemed to include terrorism. 

Compounding the problem, that same year Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that anyone participating in demonstrations supported by an illegal organization should be charged with aiding or acting in the name of the organization — effectively banning most forms of protest in the pro-Kurdish southeast.

Legal experts, meanwhile, argue that with these changes, the crucial balance between crime and punishment is lost.

“The problem here is that the law is far too widely drawn; there is no legal clarity,” explained Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch.

“These children are protesting, exercising their right to freedom of assembly and expression, and they are being punished as criminals for doing so.”

According to Turkish officials, 1,572 minors were prosecuted under the anti-terror law and 174 of them were convicted during 2006 and 2007. Since then hundreds more court cases have been launched, including Akkaya's. 

The 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Turkey is a signatory to, deals with just this issue. According to the convention: “The arrest, detention, or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

Under the new laws, however, these children are subject to a court system that neither sees nor treats them as children. It is not unusual, in a region that lacks juvenile justice facilities, for young children to have their cases heard by an adult court, or to be kept in adult prison facilities.

“You have to ask yourself whether or not these are appropriate sanctions. To me they seem to be extremely punitive. Yes, there should be a punishment for throwing stones. But shouting slogans? Holding up signs? Counting these things as terrorism is a serious problem,” Sinclair-Webb argues. 

“If you are trying to win the hearts and minds and get people not to join the PKK, this is not the way to do it.”