In its annual report released last week, Amnesty International determined that there has been no improvement in Turkey in the past year vis-à-vis human rights. Of particular concern to AI and many other regional and international human rights organisations is the number of children (mostly Kurdish) caught up in Turkey’s anti-terrorist legislation.
Hebûn Akkaya, now 17, was convicted of supporting a terrorist organisation. He is one of hundreds of minors, some as young as 13, who have been arrested and jailed in Turkey over the past few years under strict new anti-terrorism laws that allow for juveniles to be tried as adults and even be accused of ‘committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organisation’ for simply participating in demonstrations. Critics and rights defenders say the amended anti-terrorism laws are deeply flawed and also violate international conventions on the detention of children.
Akkaya spent 10 months in an adult prison awaiting his initial trial. Now out on bail pending an appeal, he faces an amended sentence of seven years. His crime was protesting the prison conditions of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey is a country steeped in conservative, highly reactionary 19th-century inspired notions of the primacy of the nation state and the central role of an official, mono-ethnic nationalism. These ideological precepts have informed the view that values and interests separate from the state are dangerous. In particular, it is held that expressions of identity that depart from the official designation of Turkey as a nation of ethnic Turks jeopardise the integrity of the state. In this scenario, any expression of Kurdish identity can be seen as ‘separatist’ in nature.
Turkish laws reflect this ‘one-nation, indivisible state’ ideology and Turkey uses the laws unremittingly to suppress all expressions of Kurdish culture and punish assertions of Kurdish identity or pro-Kurdish political viewpoints.
Anti-terrorism legislation is the most often used tactic to prosecute Kurds in Turkey, including children. As part of its European Union membership drive, Turkey updated its penal code to more closely reflect European and international standards. But observers say the country took a step backward with a 2006 amendment (Law 5532) to the country’s anti-terror law (Law 3713 of 1991) that made it possible to try minors between the ages of 15 and 18 as adults when the crime is deemed to involve terrorism. Human rights activists have pointed out that the amendment was made after protests took place in Diyarbakır (Amed).
Antenna-TR says that currently in Turkey 198 children between the ages of 13 and 17 are in prison. In 2006 and 2007, 1,572 children were prosecuted under anti-terror laws; 174 of them were found guilty. In the first few months of this year 100 children have been arrested, many of them for attending demonstrations that commemorated the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan on 15 February. The ‘strong’ evidence against them? Marbles found on their person.
‘According to the high court’s decision, prosecutors don’t need evidence to claim that somebody committed crimes on behalf of the PKK. Just participating in a demonstration is evidence enough,’ says Tahir Elci, a Diyarbakır lawyer who is defending several of the jailed children.
Turkish prosecutors have defended the heavy sentences given to the children arrested in protests, saying they are a response to an effort by the PKK to mobilise Kurdish youth against the [integrity of the] state.
According to the Human Rights Association Adana (IHD), Turkey has a history of targeting its youngest population starting with public punishment, from physically breaking their arms to prosecution and incarceration of up to 20 years, depending on the severity of the charges made by the state.
Two articles of the Turkish Penal Code applied most frequently (often arbitrarily and in an overly restrictive manner) in these cases are Article 216, which criminalises ‘inciting enmity or hatred among the population’ and Article 7(2) that criminalises ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation or for its aims.’
Children being jailed under anti-terror laws. Initiative for Freedom of Expression, 04 March 2009.
Children Crowded Jails Under Turkey’s Anti-Terrorism Laws. Now Public: Crowd Powered Media, 09 March 2009.
No Improvements in Turkey (Amnesty International). Bianet, 28 May 2009.
Schleifer, Yigal. In Turkey, hundreds of minors imprisoned on ‘terrorism’ charges. The Christian Science Monitor, 26 May 2009.
Yildiz, Kerim (2005). The Kurds in Turkey: EU accession and human rights. London: Pluto Press.