Thanks to recent legislation passed by Parliament on July 21, which lowers sentences, provides for minors to be tried in juvenile courts and no longer considers participation in demonstrations as proof of membership in a terrorist organization, Berivan was freed after serving nine months of a seven-year, nine-month sentence. Relieved and happy to be free, Berivan, who appears somewhat withdrawn, says her belief in the justice system has been shaken by her experience. “Policemen testified at my trial that they saw me throwing stones,” she says.
“It is not true. I was going to visit my aunt’s daughter when I came across the demonstration. I didn’t know it was taking place.” The dark-haired teenager lives in a modest brick house in the Gercüş district of Batman. Her family, which owns no land and has no source of income in the region, had moved to İstanbul where Berivan’s older brothers worked. The young girl was on a break in Batman when she was picked up. Her detention forced other family members to return, and Berivan plans to attend the eighth grade in the local school.
Like other juveniles arrested under anti-terror legislation, Berivan complains that she was ill treated and beaten during her arrest. Her nose was broken, she explains, and will require an operation. Her eardrum was also damaged and she suffers from frequent headaches. She admits she suffered nervous breakdowns in prison after her sentence was confirmed. Her time was spent watching TV, reading books and writing tearful letters to her family. Weekly visits by her parents only lasted half an hour.
Other youngsters who have shared her fate are also struggling to cope with their return to normal life. “My son has changed a lot. He doesn’t interact with us the way he did,” complains retired municipal worker İhsan Ekdi, whose 18-year-old son Mazlum recently came out of Diyarbakır Prison after spending 11 months behind bars. “At night, he can’t sleep and paces around the room.”
Last month Parliament passed a law introducing restrictions on sentences handed down to minors for throwing stones at security forces during demonstrations.
Mazlum and a group of released children were taken to İzmir for a brief vacation by the Education Personnel Union (Eğitim-Sen). When he returns, his father explains, the teenager hopes to pursue his education: at the time of his arrest, he was due to enter a vocational high school. But when he visited the establishment upon his release, he ended up in an argument with the principal, who asked Mazlum if he had repented for his crimes. “He was picked up while selling the Özgür Gündem [Free Agenda] newspaper. He did nothing wrong,” explains his father, indignant.
Lawyers acknowledge that the children may find it hard to shake off the terrorist label that has now been attached to them. “The amendment was introduced under pressure from civil society, but it doesn’t save the children from the terrorist label,” says lawyer Abdulhamit Çakan of the Batman Bar Association. “In at least one case, the police wrote to the child’s school, which took disciplinary action. Their sentence will also follow them when they do their military service.”
Photos taken in prison first show the young Mazlum in the children’s section of Diyarbakır Prison with fellow teenage inmates. But as soon as he entered his 18th year, he was transferred to the adult section: in another set of pictures, he is standing side-by-side with the mature Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants serving long sentences who shared his living quarters. Human rights activists have warned that imprisoning young people for minor crimes only serves to radicalize them, particularly if they come into contact with adult political prisoners.
Ferit Gülcü, a tall, gangly boy born in July 1992, has just spent two years and two weeks in prison. One of nine siblings living under the same roof, he worked as a street peddler selling watermelons. After being identified as a protester in a police photo, he was taken into custody one week after a demonstration that took place in Diyarbakır in July 2008. “The prosecution requested 44-and-a-half-years’ imprisonment. With the reduction due to his young age, he was given seven years, eight months,” says his father Alaatin Gülcü. “The court of appeals approved the verdict.”
“Overcoming this experience is not easy,” says Ferit, who hopes to return to school but isn’t sure he will be able to adapt. The teenager will undergo psychological rehabilitation and he also needs an operation on his nose, broken by blows received during his arrest.
For 22 months, Ferit was held at Diyarbakır Prison. In May, the young inmates set fire to their cell in the hope of forcing the prison authorities to provide medical treatments for the sick among them. The fire was quickly extinguished, but the young detainees were dispatched to other prisons. Ferit ended up in Malatya. “We feared the worst when we saw three ambulances going in,” explains Alaatin who, together with other families, camped outside the jail for two weeks to highlight the minors’ conditions of detention.
He claims nail clippings, hair and other pollutants were deliberately introduced into the children’s food. Eventually, the families were invited to Ankara where they met with deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), who promised their situation would be reviewed and the law amended, as well as with members of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which also supported the legal change.
“Ferit’s only crime is to be a Kurd,” believes his father, who says the family has never been involved in politics. The teenager’s arrest had a profound impact on the whole family. “When he was in Malatya, I could only visit him twice. I had to borrow money for the trip,” says his retired father, who heads a household of 12 people. Alaatin’s own father, a street merchant, died in 1994, murdered like thousands of others in the region by unidentified assailants.
For now, the released youngsters are enjoying the company of their friends and relatives. They are relieved that the nightmare is over for them. Others, whose court proceedings are pending, are still awaiting release. Families remain concerned, aware that the teenagers are out and about a lot. “I worry about the future,” says Alaatin. His concerns are shared by İhsan Ekdi who, too, fears his son could be picked up again.
Most of the minors recently released appeared to have played only minor roles, if any at all, in street protests. Local observers note, however, that a more radical generation of Kurds is emerging which feels excluded economically as well as politically and no longer believes in democracy. “Today’s teenagers were born during the worst part of the conflict,” says lawyer Rehşan Bataray of the Human Rights Association (İHD). “They grew up in families that were forced out of villages and suffered the hardship of displacement.”
Aside from those facing prosecution for political reasons, many juveniles in the region also appear in court for criminal offenses ranging from selling drugs to theft and even prostitution. Severe poverty, cramped living conditions, unemployment and a social fabric damaged by forced urbanization leave young people vulnerable to manipulation, whether by criminal gangs who recruit young pickpockets or by political groups.
What is needed is a concerted effort by civil society and government to devise programs that would channel the youngsters’ energy and teach them marketable skills. But above all, they need hope that their situation will eventually improve -- a hope that can only thrive if the roots of the Kurdish problem are addressed.