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Throwing Children in Jail by Turkey Raising Political Debate

The plight of hundreds of children currently languishing in adult jails in Turkey has become the center of a major political debate. The children, most of whom are Kurds convicted of taking part in illegal demonstrations, has also raised concerns by the European Union.

According to local human rights groups there are more than 300 children in adult jails in Turkey, many of whom are serving decade-long sentences.

Most are Kurdish children convicted under Turkey's anti-terror laws for throwing stones at Turkish security forces or participating in demonstrations in support of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party , or PKK, which is fighting the state for greater Kurdish rights.

Sixteen-year-old Hasan Dundar is currently out on bail but is facing 10 years in jail for taking part in such a protest. He explained what happened to him after he was detained.

"First we were taken to prison, and immediately paramilitary officers came and beat us for two to three hours," said Hasan Dundar. "Then the guards took us inside and they started beating us. We were there for four days and during all that time we were beaten. Every morning, they came and beat us."

Human rights groups say what happened to Dundar is all too common.

They say more than 1,000 Kurdish children are facing time in jail. Last month, 15 minors were sentenced to three to five years in prison for participating in illegal pro-PKK protests. Last March, a group of child inmates went on a hunger strike over their conditions and sentences. Their lawyers claim that some have been beaten by the guards, a charge denied by the authorities.

The plight of the children has led the leader of the opposition National Action Party to propose an amnesty for all children in jail. It was a surprise move, as the party has been one of the harshest critics of what it describes as Kurdish terrorists. The proposal has been met with a cautious response, even from the country's main pro-Kurdish party the BDP. Hasip Kaplan is a BDP member of parliament.

"An idea that is abruptly put forward without any preparatory work, without involving the other party groups, may bring disadvantages as well as the proposed advantages," said Hasip Kaplan.

That is because there are fears the amnesty call is an attempt to release juveniles convicted of murdering a Turkish-Armenian journalist and an Italian priest. Both juveniles have links to extreme nationalist groups.

But resolving the issue of jailed children remains a pressing issue for the ruling AK party. It is pushing for contentious reforms to the constitution, which are opposed by all the main opposition parties. Observers say any hope of passing the reforms depends on the backing of the pro-Kurdish BDP, which has not ruled out supporting the government - for a price.

In a bid to secure the pro-Kurdish party's support, Minister of Justice Sadullah Ergin is offering reform.

"We have important work to do when it comes to the justice system for children," said Sadullah Ergin. "We are working both in terms of bringing children's prisons up to modern standards and introducing legal reforms. We will soon make our plans public, as soon as we have finished our constitutional reforms".

According to Ergin, the reforms being considered include the building of new premises solely for juvenile inmates, the employing of child psychiatrists, and making courts more informal. But there are no specific details about reforming the anti-terror law, which is responsible for sending children to jail for long periods.

The European Union is also putting pressure on Ankara to end the practice of putting children in adult jails.

Richard Howitt is the spokesman for the European Parliament's committee on Turkey:

"There is no doubt we oppose such moves, that we make clear to our Turkish friends and colleagues that as part of the continuing reforms in the country it has to stop happening," said Richard Howitt.

Such mounting pressure from all sides is now giving to hundreds of children languishing in adult jails and many more facing a similar prospect. But observers point out that despite such consensus, the wheels of reform in Turkey can move painfully slowly.