Few would peg Hebun Akkaya, a 17-year-old with a high, nasal voice and polite manner, as a criminal convicted of supporting a terrorist organization.
But the criminal court here in Diyarbakir did. The crime: protesting the prison conditions of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed head of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Designated a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States, the PKK enjoys grass-roots support among citizens here in Turkey's predominately Kurdish southeast.
"I never thought I could go to prison for throwing a stone," says Hebun, who spent 10 months in an adult prison awaiting his initial trial. "I become really angry when I think that just for throwing a stone they were asking to put me away for 28 years. It's unjust." Now out on bail pending an appeal, he faces an amended sentence of seven years.
Hebun is one of hundreds of minors, some as young as 13, who have been arrested and jailed in Turkey over the past few years under strict new antiterrorism laws that allow for juveniles to be tried as adults and even be accused of "committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organization" for participating in demonstrations. Critics and rights defenders say the amended antiterrorism laws are deeply flawed and also violate international conventions on the detention of children.
"There is a lack of proportionality between the crime and the sentence," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch. "Counting what these children do, such as throwing stones or damaging property, as a terrorism offense is a problem."
"You are subject to a court system that doesn't see you as a child," adds Ms. Sinclair-Webb.
Over 1,500 minors prosecuted under antiterror law
As part of its European Union membership drive, Turkey has updated its penal code to more closely reflect European and international standards. But observers say the country took a step backward with a 2006 amendment to the country's antiterror law that made it possible to try minors between the ages of 15 and 18 as adults when the crime is deemed to involve terrorism.
That same year, Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that children taking part in demonstrations supported by the PKK could be charged with aiding or acting in the name of the organization.
According to Turkish officials, 1,572 minors were prosecuted under the antiterror law and 174 of them were convicted during 2006 and 2007. Hundreds more court cases against minors have been launched since then.
"The court's decision is very dangerous for the rule of law and for individual freedoms," says Tahir Elci, a Diyarbakir lawyer who is defending several of the jailed children. "According to the high court's decision, prosecutors don't need evidence to claim that somebody committed crimes on behalf of the PKK. Just participating in a demonstration is evidence enough.
"We accept that these kids may have thrown stones, but they didn't do it in the name of the PKK," he adds. "They are children."
Turkish policy conflicts with UN, EU
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child deals specifically with the issue of the arrest and imprisonment of minors. According to the convention, which Turkey has signed on to, "The arrest, detention, or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."
A European Union official in Ankara says the arrest and imprisonment of minors is a cause for "concern."
The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, added, "They are not being treated as juveniles, and that is against international conventions. They are being treated as terrorists, and they are not even aware of what they have done."
Brussels has previously expressed concern about what it sees as deficiencies in Turkey's juvenile court system. An EU report last fall on Turkey's progress as a candidate country stated, "Despite some progress in the juvenile justice system, the number of child courts is still inadequate, there is a lack of social workers in these courts and their workload is heavy."
In Adana, for example, the lack of juvenile justice facilities has meant that even children under the age of 15, who by law were supposed to be tried in juvenile court, ended up having their court cases heard in an adult court.
For one boy, jail prompted 'awakening' to PKK views
Turkish prosecutors have defended the heavy sentences given to the children arrested in protests, saying they are a response to an effort by the PKK to mobilize Kurdish youth against the state.
But Sinclair-Webb, of Human Rights Watch, says that sending children off to jail could backfire.
"It's a very hardening process for children and psychologically very damaging," she says. "If you go in as a child who was just having a lark throwing some stones, you may come out as a full-fledged militant.
"If you are trying to win hearts and minds and get people to not join the PKK, this is not the way to do it," she adds.
One teenager, imprisoned for 13 months after participating in a demonstration and now out on bail while he awaits trial, says he was "changed" by his experience in jail.
"I became more aware," says the 16-year-old boy, who asked not to be named because of his upcoming court case, where he could face seven years in prison if convicted.
"The things I learned in prison about myself, about the Kurds, about the PKK, it was like an awakening."