Child 'terrorists' paying with their lives in Turkey's prisons

Underage protesters locked up by the Turkish authorities in 'a game of politics' over Kurdistan.

Kurdish protesters clash with Turkish riot police in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir. Minors are often used as pawns in the frontline. Bulent Kilic / AFP
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ISTANBUL // Abdullah says he is innocent. The police say the 14-year-old boy threw stones at security forces during a demonstration in support of Kurdish rebels in the southern Turkish city of Adana last December. Turkey's judiciary says Abdullah is a terrorist. The boy has been sentenced to just under five years in prison for supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a rebel group that has been fighting against the Turkish state since 1984, and for spreading PKK propaganda.

With the sentence, Abdullah has joined hundreds of other youths officially designated as terrorists for taking part in pro-PKK demonstrations. An anti-terrorism law says underage defendants are to be treated like grown-ups in connection with suspected terrorist crimes. Politicians and security forces say PKK activists put minors at the front of demonstrations to make it harder for the police to dissolve the crowd.

"This has been going on since 2006," said Metin Bakkalci, general secretary of the Turkish Human Rights Foundation pressure group. That was when the current practice in Turkey's anti-terrorism law was introduced. He said about 4,000 children had been arrested under the law since 2006. Last year alone, 177 children had been sentenced to a combined prison sentence of 772 years, he added. Some face up to 25 years in prison.

Under growing pressure from human rights groups and the public, the government has promised to change the draconian law before the end of this month. "We are determined to solve this problem," Besir Atalay, the interior minister, said during a visit to Turkey's predominantly Kurdish south-east last week. With the planned amendment, the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, wants to make sure that stone-throwing children will not be tried by courts tasked with dealing with terrorism suspects, but by juvenile courts, which would result in much more lenient sentences.

The bill is part of a wider effort by the government to end the Kurdish conflict by peaceful means. The EU, which Turkey wants to join, has also criticised the existing law. But although the AKP has been promising a change to help the children since last year, it has yet to bring the draft amendment to the parliament floor. One reason was an upsurge in violent demonstrations, in which many stone-throwing youths participated. Tactics and party politics have also played their part. The amendment has become entangled in the heated debate over the Kurdish conflict, and any move that can be portrayed by nationalists as a concession to Kurdish militancy is highly inflammable.

The Republican People's Party, or CHP, the biggest opposition force in parliament, refused to support the amendment, saying the AKP bill included a rule that would make it possible for Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader and Turkey's public enemy number one, to get a new trial. When Sevahir Bayindir, a deputy of the pro-Kurdish Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, told parliament last month that Kurdish youths were throwing stones because they had not been given the right to learn Kurdish at school, he was cut short by Mehmet Ali Sahin, the parliamentary speaker. "Are you defending the stone-throwing by children?" Mr Sahin sternly asked Mr Bayindir.

"We are very sorry that children have been used in short-term political tactics," Mr Bakkalci, the human rights campaigner, said. "This is unacceptable." While the politicians bicker, some children grow up in prison. The daily Milliyet newspaper reported this week that one underage inmate of a prison in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir would soon be taken out the cell he currently shares with other minors and transferred into a normal prison cell with grown-up inmates because he is turning 18. The teenager has been in prison for three years.

A similar fate could await Abdullah, whose story has been widely reported by the Turkish press and whose family name has been withheld by authorities because he is a minor. Abdullah was arrested in Adana after several youths attacked the police with stones, erected barricades and shouted slogans in support of the PKK. Abdullah insisted he was passing the scene of the demonstration by chance without taking part and although police experts failed to find traces of explosives on his hands, he was charged before being released pending trial.

Mehmet Salih Kesmez, Adana's police chief, ordered his officers to visit Abdullah at home after his release and to make sure that the boy returned to school. But a few months later, a court in Adana handed down the sentence of four years, eight months and 20 days in prison. "Why should I throw stones? I want to be a policeman when I grow up," Abdullah told the Radikal newspaper. Abdullah's father, identified only by his first name, Mehmet, said it was absurd to think that members of his family would take part in a pro-PKK demonstration after Abdullah's grandmother and an aunt had been killed by the rebels in 1995. He said he would take the case to Turkey's top court of appeals. Pending the outcome of that appeal, Abdullah can continue to go to school.