Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jail the Children, Pt. II

In a previous post, I linked to a report that talked about the problem of minors being jailed as part of strict new anti-terrorism laws passed by the Turkish parliament in 2006. I recently went down to southeast Turkey to do some reporting on this issue and filed a story which was just posted on the Christian Science Monitor's website. From my article:
Hebun 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 antiterrorism laws that allow for juveniles to be tried as adults and even be accused of "committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organization" for participating in demonstrations. Critics and rights defenders say the amended antiterrorism laws are deeply flawed and also violate international conventions on the detention of children.

"There is a lack of proportionality between the crime and the sentence," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch. "Counting what these children do, such as throwing stones or damaging property, as a terrorism offense is a problem."

"You are subject to a court system that doesn't see you as a child," adds Ms. Sinclair-Webb.

As part of its European Union membership drive, Turkey has 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 to the country's antiterror law that made it possible to try minors between the ages of 15 and 18 as adults when the crime is deemed to involve terrorism.

That same year, Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that children taking part in demonstrations supported by the PKK could be charged with aiding or acting in the name of the organization.

According to Turkish officials, 1,572 minors were prosecuted under the antiterror law and 174 of them were convicted during 2006 and 2007. Hundreds more court cases against minors have been launched since then.

"The court's decision is very dangerous for the rule of law and for individual freedoms," says Tahir Elci, a Diyarbakir lawyer who is defending several of the jailed children. "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.

"We accept that these kids may have thrown stones, but they didn't do it in the name of the PKK," he adds. "They are 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 mobilize Kurdish youth against the state.

But Sinclair-Webb, of Human Rights Watch, says that sending children off to jail could backfire.

"It's a very hardening process for children and psychologically very damaging," she says. "If you go in as a child who was just having a lark throwing some stones, you may come out as a full-fledged militant.

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

One teenager, imprisoned for 13 months after participating in a demonstration and now out on bail while he awaits trial, says he was "changed" by his experience in jail.

"I became more aware," says the 16-year-old boy, who asked not to be named because of his upcoming court case, where he could face seven years in prison if convicted.

"The things I learned in prison about myself, about the Kurds, about the PKK, it was like an awakening."
You can read the full article here.

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