INSIDE a concrete shack in the predominantly Kurdish slum of Daglioglu, in south-east Turkey (The Economist means Kurdistan but they don´t want to upset Turkey mentioning the "K" word! - a shame), 17-year-old “Mehmet” (he cannot give his real name) rolls up his trousers and points to a deep scar. “They beat me, kicked me repeatedly, called me a ‘dirty Kurd’, forced me to do push-ups and demanded I become an informant.” In another neighbourhood a 16-year-old girl suffered worse horrors. “Confess or I’ll fuck you and your mother,” she was told as she was driven to police headquarters. She and other female detainees were, she says, clubbed and dragged by the hair. In jail they were stripped naked and forced to kneel as wardens “searched our crevices”.
Both teenagers are among hundreds of Kurdish minors who face prosecution around the country for allegedly taking part in illegal street protests in support of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In Adana alone, some 155 children are facing trial, 67 have been convicted and five have begun to serve their sentences, says Ethem Acikalin, head of the local branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association. All were charged under article 220/6 of the penal code, which criminalises “acting on behalf of a terrorist organisation”. The cases are tried in adult courts. Most of the crimes consist of no more than chanting pro-PKK slogans and throwing stones at police. But some have also been charged with damaging public property, resisting arrest, spreading terrorist propaganda or endangering public security.
Mr Acikalin reckons that, even after benefiting from reductions because of his age, “Mehmet” will spend at least four years in jail. “When it comes to children, the courts have frequently chosen to place them in pre-trial prison detention for many months,” comments Emma Sinclair-Webb, of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog. “This flies in the face of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Turkey is a party.”
It also flies in the face of recent efforts by the ruling Justice and Development Party to improve the lot of Turkey’s 14m Kurds. After launching the country’s first state-run (and predictably tame) Kurdish-language television station in January, the government hinted that it might let thousands of Turkified villages revert to their original Kurdish names. The army chief, General Ilker Basbug, recently conceded that, even though 40,000 rebels had been killed since the PKK launched its insurgency in 1984, “social and economic measures” were required. Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s commander in northern Iraq, says the PKK no longer demands independence and is happy to let third parties negotiate a deal on its behalf. All of this prompted Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, to declare recently that there was now “an historic opportunity” to fix the Kurdish problem.
Perhaps so. In Adana Mr Acikalin is “still in shock” after an unprecedented meeting with security bigwigs. “They listened with patience, offered us tea and promised to stop the abuse,” he says. Yet Mr Acikalin, who is himself facing eight separate charges under article 220/6 for a series of public statements that he has made, insists he will not be swayed unless and until the law is changed.
His scepticism is shared by Ali Kulter, who ekes out $12 a day as a farmworker in Tuzluca, just south of Adana. Home is a reed shack without running water, the toilet is a hole dug in the ground that serves Mr Kulter and scores of Kurdish families. They migrated here in the early 1990s after being forced out of their villages in the south-eastern province of Sirnak for refusing to join a state-run Kurdish militia to fight the PKK. “Our village was an Eden, this is hell,” Mr Kulter sighs. “If there were peace I wouldn’t spend another second here.” But, as the 55-year-old explains, “my stomach is full with unfulfilled promises [by the state].”
Some of his scorn ought to be directed at the PKK. Despite Mr Karayilan’s doveish talk, his men continue to blow up Turkish soldiers. The Danish-based, PKK-leaning channel, ROJ TV, “certainly plays a part in inciting teenagers,” says Guven Boga, who represents Egitim Sen, a leftist teachers’ union. One big worry, he adds, is ethnic tensions between Kurdish and non-Kurdish students that flare up with each PKK attack. The other is the lack of opportunity for many Kurdish youths. “They are angry and have no hope for the future,” Mr Boga says. Their experience in jail only hardens them. And this makes them perfect recruits for the PKK.