Juvenile justice reform sought in Turkey

5 Mart 2014

Advocacy groups and lawyers are seeking comprehensive improvements in Turkey’s juvenile prisons and justice system.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul — 05/03/14


Mustafa S. was imprisoned for 2 1/2 months while he was awaiting trial in Istanbul’s Caglayan courthouse.

One of six children, Mustafa, 17, and his family emigrated from the southeastern province of Gaziantep and he was arrested last year on charges of theft in his neighbourhood Gazi, known as one of the most dangerous places in Istanbul. His trial is still on-going.

“I had my prison term in Maltepe Children Prison, which was relatively good enough when compared with other prisons where my peers reside. However, I had friends who became involved in bad networks within the prison, pushing them into dirty business after they go out,” Mustafa told SES Türkiye.

“We have been stigmatised when we returned to our neighbourhood. They call us ‘thief’ although we want to get rid of our dishonoured past. They don’t let us to be integrated back into the society, and there is no state support for us to get our childhood back,” he added.

“When cops arrested me after that theft incident, they held me for two days in the police station. They beat me. They didn’t give a single meal. After that, I don’t dream anymore of being a policeman in the future, although it was my only dream.”

Mustafa now works in a bicycle store and earns 600 TL each month by painting bikes. He has to look after his family as his father is in prison, while his elder brother will soon leave to perform his military duty.

Mustafa is among the many juveniles who have experienced the realities of child prisons and the difficulties of returning home. As of January 1st, there were 1,903 children ages 12 to 18 in Turkey’s five juvenile prisons. The Justice Ministry aims to increase the number of juvenile prisons to 15 by the end of 2016.

In a reply to a parliamentary question in July 2013, then-Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin stated that the aim is to increase the number of independent child prisons, which is covered under the financial investment programme of 2012-2017. Ergin also stated that the new prisons will be designed according to the education and rehabilitation needs of children, with more social activities and hygiene tools.

The Initiative for the Closure of Children’s Prisons issued a declaration in late January, calling for further measures to integrate child prisoners into society along with an effective civil monitoring of juvenile prisons in line with Turkey’s international commitments.

The Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD) recently issued a statement citing maltreatment and “naked search” torture of children who stay in Ankara’s Sincan Children Prison.

The statement called for authorities to investigate the prison’s practices, claiming that prisoners drink from the faucets in the restrooms because they are not provided with drinking water.

Ayse Turkmenoglu, a Konya deputy of the Justice and Development Party and head of the parliamentary prisons sub-commission, denied claims that children are ill-treated in Sincan prison. Instead, she said that children mistreat police.

Turkmenoglu told reporters on January 6th that “after having watched the camera logs, I have been disappointed. Children were attacking officers as if they were Robocop. They were beating guardians who are at the same age of their fathers or uncles.”

“Currently these children are entrusted to the state. They don’t have their families with them. They are under state protection, so their life security is under our protection in all sense,” Turkmenoglu added.

Turkmenoglu declined to be speak to SES Türkiye.

UNICEF has been conducting workshops and field reports, and has been collaborating with Turkey’s government for a decade in order to establish a separate and specialised juvenile justice system along with transparency and independent monitoring.

“The fundamental internationally agreed principles of juvenile justice are to ensure that child offenders are supported to be reintegrated and play a constructive role in society, and imprisonment is a measure of last resort, which implies that alternative responses are in place,” Séverine Jacomy-Vité, chief of UNICEF Turkey’s child protection section, told SES Türkiye.

“Today, in Turkey, more than 50 percent of children coming before a court or being detained are still handled by non-specialised professionals and in adult systems. As a result, there is a potential for wrong decisions to be made and too many children are held in pre-trial detention,” Jacomy-Vité added.

Social workers, sociologists and paediatricians should play an enhanced role at each stage of juvenile justice, which requires an improvement in their status, numbers and training, Jacomy-Vité said.

“In order to ensure that the judiciary, the police, social workers and civil society co-operate better to handle each case, Turkey needs a permanent inter-sectorial juvenile justice agency,” she added.

In 2012, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child made a series of recommendations to Turkey, and next year the UN Human Rights Council will review progress. Among those recommendations, the Committee urged Turkey to improve its “administration of juvenile justice, including long detention periods and poor conditions in some prisons.”

The Committee also expressed concerns about reports of ill-treatment and torture of children in prisons. But it also commended Turkey for increasing the age of criminal liability from 11 to 12 and requiring all suspects younger than 18, including those charged under the counter-terrorism law, to be considered in juvenile court.

Jacomy-Vité said there is a crucial need for alternative measures and plans to make it easier to gradually integrate former child prisoners into society, especially by introducing them back into education or employment sectors, finding them accommodation, and developing tailor-made support to solve their reasons for offending, such as anger, financial needs, and feelings of injustice.

Tulay Bingol, a lawyer and member of IHD Istanbul’s Child Rights Commission, said that under Turkey’s current juvenile justice system, imprisoned children face serious problems in social reintegration and lose educational opportunities. This leads to new risks, as juveniles become involved in crimes through networks they establish in prison.

“Instead, new structures like education houses or juvenile detention centres would provide a better system, being enhanced with further rights and compensatory measures, where children would be protected against all kinds of violence and abuse,” Bingol told SES Türkiye.

Bingol said there is a need for proactive measures to prevent crimes, which would require local authorities to monitor at-risk families where poverty, immigration, violence, negative role models, and interrupted education opportunities prevail.

“The new system should bring alternatives to the punishment of children, and in proportion to the crime they commit, they should be supported with educative and protective measures through guidance by social workers without being involved into the judiciary system at that age,” she added.

“Contrary to the universal norms, the current physical conditions of Turkey’s children’s prisons do not meet the needs of children, lacking of a healthy environment, where they cannot have a regular contact with their own families, which decreases the feelings of self-respect for children,” Bingol said.

“Everyone should ask this key question: Under which conditions do children slide down to commit a crime, and as adults, what we are doing to prevent this? What is our main target, to punish them or to fix the reasons of the crime and integrate them back into the society?” she added.

The 2005 Child Protection Law brought fundamental changes to juvenile justice, especially a commitment to apply the penalty of imprisonment and measures restricting liberty as a last resort, while adopting the possibility of avoiding trial through mediation.

Legally, juveniles are required to be held in special penitentiary establishments, and if these establishments do not exist in some provinces, they are accommodated in particular sections of adult prisons.

Turkey’s child rights commissions under bar associations, independent lawyers and the EU’s Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT) have conducted field studies in Turkey’s prisons and issued a report after a week-long visit in June 2012.

“The CPT has emphasised on a number of occasions that all juveniles, whether on remand or sentenced, should be held in detention centres specifically designed for persons of this age, offering regimes tailored to their needs and staffed by persons trained in dealing with young persons,” the report stated.