At a time when the shadow of war again looms over Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east, it’s not only the soldiers, but also the young and vulnerable who end up suffering. According to Kurdish lawyers, hundreds of teenagers, some as young as 11, are in prison on terrorism charges. These children are often held in high-security adult prisons where conditions are harsh, accused of stone-throwing or chanting nationalist slogans at rallies held by the PKK Kurdish separatist movement. International human rights groups say that Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws are being used to imprison children for long stretches of time and in violation of the UN’s convention on children’s rights. These groups are urging politicians to support a bill being debated in the Turkish parliament which would reduce penalties for children accused of terrorism offences and ensure minors are tried in juvenile courts.
Attitudes on both sides of the long-running conflict have been hardening after an upsurge in violence over recent weeks. In the latest attack, ten PKK militants and three Turkish soldiers were killed in a raid on a military outpost. These kinds of attack started up again after PKK rebels ended a 14-month ceasefire at the beginning of June. Since then, over 80 Turkish soldiers have been killed, many more than for the whole of last year.
Turkey has asked for greater assistance from Iraq and United States to calm this current crisis, in a conflict which has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984, when the PKK took up arms to fight for a separate Kurdish homeland. During the fourteen-month ceasefire, it had been hoped that a lasting political solution could be found for the 25-year old war, similar to the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Conciliatory moves were made towards the Turkish Kurds by the government, including the launch of the first state-owned Kurdish language television channel.
But elements in the government were outraged when PKK militants in full combat gear declared “victory” at mass rallies in the region and killed seven soldiers in December. For their part, PKK fighters insisted that the Turkish army had continued operations throughout the ceasefire, leading to the deaths and arrests of many activists. Despite the worsening of the situation in recent weeks, the Turkish parliament has pledged to carry on with its liberalising reforms for the Kurds and to continue debating the bill which would alter the law for detaining young people. For the many children languishing in Turkish jails, a change in legislation cannot come too soon.