Ending the penalization of youth in Turkey?

Turkey’s youth are bearing the brunt of their state’s authoritarian tendencies. Why are they being targeted, and how can the new members of Parliament bring it to an end? 

Theodore Baird
10 June 2015
Young boy with HDP flag at rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Aurore Belot/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Young boy with HDP flag at rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Aurore Belot/Demotix. All rights reserved.Turkey’s general election on 7 June 2015 is a political milestone for the country: the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to garner enough votes to form a single party government, while the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the 10 percent election threshold to gain seats in the Grand National Assembly (Meclis). For many Turkish youths, the 2015 general election represents their first time voting, and although many have grown up without experience of military rule, they have experienced an environment of increasing authoritarianism and socio-cultural conflict.

The HDP actively campaigned on youth issues, vowing to lower the voting age and providing cash transfers to those aged 15 to 25 for transport and communication. The concerns of young people in Turkey centre around the economy (where youth suffer from high unemployment), living standards, education, and concerns over the rising authoritarian practices of the AKP.  The recent detention of a 16-year-old political critic of the AKP (charged with insulting the head of state) and the rough detention of student protesters (among other events) have not quelled youth concerns about police brutality and political freedoms.

Although the discussion of an executive presidency and the authoritarian tendencies of the AKP have been partially suppressed by Turkey’s recent general election, fears over a repressive internal security apparatus remain. Uncertainty remains over the continued growth of arbitrary police actions against political opponents and the methods which the AKP (or a new ruling coalition) may use against dissidents.

New coercive powers

Of particular concern is the controversial new internal security law which has been at the centre of intense debate and criticism. The law grants new powers to both provincial governors and the police: among other provisions, provincial and district governors will be able to command police and gendarmerie to investigate crimes (a power previously held only by public prosecutors), the act of carrying banners or emblems of outlawed organizations during protests and covering faces with masks will be criminalized, a number of weapons will be reclassified as 'assault weapons' (raising the length of a sentence if used), and police are permitted to fire live ammunition to quell protests.

Although critics have correctly highlighted that the new law solidifies Turkey as a police state and criminalizes dissent, many of the critiques have overlooked the way in which juveniles and children (those younger than 18) will be specifically affected by the new legislation. Turkey has a history of criminalizing child protest, especially in its restive south-east, and the new security law does not help alleviate the problems associated with the arrest and imprisonment of juveniles.

The number of juveniles ‘received’ and charged for an offence by the Turkish National Police (TNP) and the Gendarmerie General Command (GGC) has increased by 418 percent between 1997 and 2013 (see Figure 1). The number of juveniles convicted and sent to prison has also increased by 138 percent between 1999 and 2008 (with some variation, see Figure 2). The majority of charges against juveniles have been for assault, theft, the use/sale/possession of drugs, damage to property, or threats. The number of youths charged under anti-terror laws, however, increased by 647 percent between 1997 and 2013 (see Figure 3).


Figure 1: Total Number of Juveniles Under 18 'Received' and Charged by Security Units in Turkey: 1997-2013 Source - TurkStat: http://tuikapp.tuik.gov.tr/cocuksucdagitimapp/cocuksuc.zul


Figure 2: Total Number of Juveniles Under 18 in Prison in Turkey: 1999-2008 Source - TurkStat: http://www.turkstat.gov.tr/PreTablo.do?alt_id=1070


 Figure 3: Total Number of Juveniles Under 18 ‘Received’ and Charged with Terror-related Offences: 1997-2013 Note: 2007 only includes data for the period July-December. Source - TurkStat: http://tuikapp.tuik.gov.tr/cocuksucdagitimapp/coc

While the Turkish population has grown steadily since 2000, and remains a relatively young country (with 29.7 percent of the population comprised of those under 18), the proportion of the youth population (those under 18 years) has actually declined from 45 percent of the total population in 1935 to 29.7 percent in 2013. In other words, it is not that the proportion of the youth population is growing, it is that the police are actively targeting those under 18 for criminal offences.

In provinces where there is considerable civil unrest and government repression (such as the predominantly Kurdish south-east), the youth population is rather high—Şırnak had the highest proportion of youth among Turkish provinces, at 48.8 percent of the population. In eastern Turkey household sizes tend be larger with more children. According to a recent survey, Şırnak province contains the largest households, with 7.3 people on average, predominantly children. In an economy where the minimum wage is not enough to make ends meet, large households in the south-east also tend to remain in poverty, with poverty rates higher than in other areas of the country, due in part to conflict dynamics and active underdevelopment by the state. Şırnak has been a nexus of struggle in the decade’s long conflict between Kurdish rebels and the state. Some reports claim that police keep Kurdish children under active observation which may escalate into verbal harassment or violence.

Furthermore, the proportion of juveniles ‘received’ and charged in south-east Anatolia is one of the highest (10.3 percent of total ‘received’ and charged) alongside Istanbul (13.4 percent), the Aegean (16.6 percent), and the Mediterranean (14.8 percent) regions, even when the total population of the south-east Anatolian regions is lower than the population centres of Istanbul, Izmir, and Antalya (author’s own calculations based on data from TurkStat). In other words, not only is the youth population slowly declining in Turkey in general (predominantly in the west of the country), but areas with a high Kurdish youth concentration in the south-east are being disproportionately targeted for penalization by the state.

The targets of penalization have primarily been young boys aged 15 to 17, and of total youth in prison in 2008 (the last year of available data), 90 percent are boys, similar to the 90 percent boys ‘received’ and charged in 2008 (own calculations based on data). However, the gender balance appears to be changing: the percentage of apprehended girls is increasing, from around 6.5 percent of girls apprehended and charged in 1997 to 11.3 percent in 2013. Note that these are only the balance of girls who have been charged with an offence: the number of girls apprehended is higher. In 2013, 68.6 percent of juveniles ‘received’ into security units were male and 31.4 percent were female, meaning that many are released to their families and not charged.

Politicisation of the youth

Protestors wearing 'anonymous' masks during Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey. Akin Aydinli/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Protestors wearing 'anonymous' masks during Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey. Akin Aydinli/Demotix. All rights reserved.The reasons for the rise in arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment of juveniles in Turkey are manifold, and include, among others:

a) Amendments to and changes in implementation of the Anti-Terror Law (Law 3713 on the Fight against Terrorism, or colloquially the ‘Taş Atan Çocuklar Yasası’, the ‘Stone Throwing Children Law’). A major revision to Law 3713 occurred in 2006 with a change in definition of various terror-related offenses, preceding a slow upswing in apprehensions and prosecutions of juveniles for terror-related offenses (see Figure 3). Another amendment is from 2010, and makes a number of articles inapplicable to children under 15 years and changed the location of prosecution from special anti-terror courts back to juvenile courts. However, juveniles between the ages of 15 and 18 can still be prosecuted, as per the Turkish Criminal Code (Law 5237), with juveniles aged 12 to 15 able to be prosecuted in special circumstances.

b) Increasing police violence alongside increasing authoritarianism. As rule of law is being eroded in Turkey through ‘authoritarian drift’, police violence has increased as the police are mobilized by the ruling party to publically mistreat and harass political factions and groups which are hostile to the state.

c) Expansion of carceral institutions. The general prison population in Turkey has expanded from 49,512 in 2000 to 158,537 in 2014, with the construction of new prisons to meet demand. Treatment during arrest and imprisonment are considered poor, with reports of children brutalizing other children.

d) Increasing involvement of youth in politics. After the 1980 coup, youth were banned from membership in political parties and the voting age was raised to 21, measures taken to try and depoliticise Turkish youth. Although the ban was repealed in 1995 and the voting age lowered to 18, youth remained apolitical, with many scared about engaging with party politics or social movements. The growth in youth engagement in politics since the 2000s may partly explain rising levels of arrests and detentions, as the state seeks alternative means of criminalizing dissent among youth who now take a more active role in party and movement politics.

e) The Kurdish political movement. The ‘rights deficit’ of Turkey’s Kurds is considered a root cause of the conflict between the state and Kurdish rebels, and the rights gap is exploited through actively targeting Kurdish political activists for ‘arbitrary and abusive terrorism trials’ occurring in parallel with the active criminalization of Kurdish youth participating in political actions against the state. Numerous reports allege violations of the rights of the child during arrest, trial, and detention.

f) Additional factors involved could be highlighted, including demographic change (mentioned earlier), uneven economic development and growth in inequality, criminal justice system reform, impunity among state officials, changes in the education system and school drop-out rates, and the role of minority rights in political conflict, among others.

With the passing of the new internal security law in Turkey, the road to reforming the system of prosecution and imprisonment of juveniles in Turkey has been partially blocked as police powers have been expanded. The Turkish government should actively comply with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, and the European Convention on the Exercise of Children’s Rights, by amending Law 3713 to prevent prosecution of juveniles under 18 years of age. Harassment of children, through actively monitoring or arresting and releasing, should be prevented. Children who have already been prosecuted should receive rehabilitation services before release, and extra care should be taken with vulnerable youth. Steps can also be taken to end flawed convictions of youth activists. Turkey has done much to promote the rights of the child, but much more needs to be done.

Ending restrictions on human rights in Turkey is a complex and ongoing endeavour which requires bringing an end to governmental interference in the criminal justice system and reforming laws which perpetuate injustice and abuse. While Turkey celebrated Children’s Day on 23 April, and Parliamentary elections took place on 7 June, the new members of the Meclis should take time to reflect on the state of child prosecutions and the steady growth of child arrests and imprisonment in the country. 

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