NEW YORK TIMES
July 29, 2010
Turkey Softens Law That Jailed Young Kurds
BATMAN, Turkey — Berivan Sayaca, a vivacious 15-year-old Kurdish girl, dreamed of escaping her life as a seamstress and studying law. Instead, she was convicted of supporting terrorism by attending a protest rally and sentenced to nearly eight years behind bars.
This week, Berivan was released from prison about 10 months into her sentence. The move came after the Turkish Parliament, in an attempt to alleviate rising tensions with the Kurdish minority here in the southeast, passed a bill this month reducing the sentences of hundreds of youths, 18 and younger, who had been put on trial and nicknamed the “stone-throwing kids.”
An estimated 40,000 people have died during the decades of conflict over national identity and land between Turkey and the separatist guerrilla group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K. In recent years, many young Kurds have been accused of being terrorists, yet in some cases their only crime was to have attended a demonstration, chanted a slogan or thrown a stone.
After Berivan returned home this week to this poor, predominantly Kurdish city in Turkey’s southeast, her emotional reunion captured by television stations across Turkey, she said her imprisonment had emboldened her resolve.
“It was very hard to be in jail at my age,” she said. “But now I have my life back, and I still want to be a lawyer.”
The Turkish government is particularly edgy about the Kurdish issue now. In June, the P.K.K. ended a 14-month cease-fire, prompting a surge of attacks on the Turkish armed forces and undermining a recent attempt at outreach to the Kurds.
More than 80 Turkish soldiers have been killed this year by the P.K.K., which in the past has committed hundreds of attacks on civilians, including Kurds. Turkey, the United States and the European Union classify the P.K.K. as a terrorist organization. Some fear a return to the 1990s, when thousands of Kurdish villagers were driven from their homes.
The intensification of the violence coincided with the deadly clash between Israel and an aid flotilla to Gaza led by a Turkish organization, an event deeply resented by many of Turkey’s estimated 12 million ethnic Kurds.
Many of them view their quest for self-determination through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict and bitterly accuse the Turkish government of championing the Palestinians and defending the militant group Hamas while turning its back on its own minorities.
“How dare Turkey send boats to Gaza and make friends with Hamas when its own house is on fire, when they are sending our kids to jail and we have no hope?” Meryem Sayaca, Berivan’s mother, said before the teenager’s release. “We empathize with the Palestinians, but are we not Muslims, too?”
Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, said the governing Justice and Development Party had been seeking ways to improve the lives and rights of Kurds, including licensing a Kurdish-language television station, advocating Kurdish-language studies at universities and promoting Kurds’ membership in Parliament.
But many Kurds debate the government’s recent concessions or remain distrustful of them, and the efforts have also come under attack from opponents who fear that the moves may encourage terrorism.
Several members of the opposition in Parliament questioned the legal changes that led to Berivan’s release and warned that the bill’s supporters risked ending up with blood on their hands. Many youths fill the ranks of the P.K.K., including young female guerrillas, they argued.
“From now on, you are responsible for exploited minors and the people who are harmed by these minors,” said Ridvan Yalcin of the Nationalist Movement Party, whose members stormed out of the meeting when the bill was being debated.
Hundreds of Kurdish children were imprisoned under a tough antiterrorism law, introduced in 2006, that equated protest activities like attending an illegal rally with being a member or supporter of a terrorist group, according to Berivan’s lawyer, Reyhan Yalcindag, a leading human rights activist.
Berivan was jailed soon after her family moved last year from Istanbul to Batman, one of dozens of bleak cities in Turkey’s impoverished southeast where high unemployment and illiteracy rates have made it a fertile recruitment ground for the P.K.K.
Like many young Kurdish girls, Berivan had left school for manual labor. On Oct. 9, she went to visit her aunt, but did not return home. Soon after, Berivan’s mother said, the family heard she had been arrested after being seen at a pro-P.K.K. demonstration.
During her 30-minute trial, four months later, the main evidence produced by the prosecution was a photograph of her at the protest, a scarf pulled over her face. Berivan told her parents that she had accidentally stumbled onto the demonstration. But police officials in Batman said they had filmed her participating in the protest.
“Berivan was upset when I was fired from my job for speaking Kurdish,” said her father, Selim Sayaca. “But she is just a girl; she is not a terrorist.”
Last October, 34 Kurds, including 8 P.K.K. fighters, were allowed to return to Turkey from northern Iraq in what was viewed as a critical peace gesture on both sides. But their return prompted an angry public outcry when they traveled triumphantly across the southeast dressed as guerrillas and refused to renounce violence. The arrest of hundreds of Kurdish activists followed.
Nijat Yaruk, chairman of the main Kurdish political party in Diyarbakir, the southeastern city where Berivan was imprisoned, said the government had refused to allow Kurdish to be taught in the state schools or to approve any moves toward Kurdish autonomy.
Some historians say the modern Turkish republic, founded in the early 1920s, has long viewed the assertion of ethnic identity, Kurdish or otherwise, as a threat to unity.
The resumption of fighting here has sent the stone-throwing kids back into the streets, and on a recent day, hundreds of Kurdish children, some of them as young as 7, gathered in front of a mosque in Diyarbakir to await the return of the bodies of two P.K.K. guerrillas killed by the Turkish Army.
“Revenge! Revenge!” they chanted, waiving illegal P.K.K. flags and wearing white sheets on their heads to avoid being identified by the police.
While such actions would have been enough in the past to convict a minor as a member of a terrorist organization, under the amendment to the 2006 law, minors caught at pro-P.K.K. demonstrations will no longer be charged with being members of a terrorist organization. Their cases will go to juvenile courts instead of courts that handle serious crimes.
With no education in prison, many newly freed young Kurds were re-entering society with psychological trauma and no skills, said Ms. Yalcindag, the human rights lawyer. Last year, she said, one of her clients, a 16-year-old Kurdish boy, hanged himself in his cell with a blanket.
Ali Oncel, 17, a vegetable seller who was arrested after attending a P.K.K.-sponsored demonstration in February and spent about five months in a jail before being released this month, said that prison had left him feeling despondent, isolated and angry.
“My only contact with the outside world was one room in the jail without a roof where you could see the sky,” said Ali, the only breadwinner in his family of nine.
Asked whether he would now join the P.K.K., he paused and sighed.
“My friends in prison said they would get their revenge by going directly from prison to the mountains to fight,” he said. “I have to take care of my family. But if I didn’t, I know what I would have to do.”
Yilmaz Akinci contributed reporting.
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