If Turkish prosecutors have their way, Yilmaz, a soft-spoken 16-year-old with a teenager's pimply face, could spend up to seven years in jail for having joined a demonstration early last year in the town of Cizre, in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Yilmaz (the name has been changed to protect his identity) has already spent 13 months in jail awaiting trial, although he was recently let out on bail. Although he joined a demonstration that took place after the funeral of a young boy who had been run over by a police armored vehicle during an earlier protest, prosecutors say the event was organized by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and are charging the boy with supporting a terrorist organization.
"In each appearance in court, we were telling the prosecutors that we are children, that they should let us go back to our lives," says Yilmaz.
Yilmaz is one of hundreds of minors, some as young as 13, who have been arrested and jailed in Turkey over the last few years under strict new anti-terrorism laws that allow for juveniles to be tried as adults. Some have even been accused of "committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organization" for participating in demonstrations that prosecutors charge have been organized the PKK.
In the southern Turkish city of Adana, for example, 11 minors were recently convicted and sentenced to prison terms of up to seven years under these laws. Critics and rights defenders say the amended anti-terrorism 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 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," added Ms. Sinclair-Webb.
Turkey, as part of reforms connected to its European Union membership drive, has updated its penal code to more closely reflect European and international standards. But observers say Turkey took a step back with a 2006 amendment to the country's Anti-Terror 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 Anti-Terror 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."
Adds Mr. Elci: "We accept that these kids may have thrown stones, but they didn't do it in the name of the PKK. They are children."
Few would peg Hebun Akkaya, a 17-year-old with a high, nasal voice and an exceedingly polite manner, as a convicted criminal, accused of supporting a terrorist organization.
Out on bail pending an appeal, Akkaya now faces seven years in jail -- reduced from the 28-year sentence he was originally given -- after he took part in a demonstration in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir protesting the prison conditions of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed head of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
"I never thought I could go to prison for throwing a stone," says Akkaya, who already spent 10 months in an adult prison while 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."
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."
An EU official in Ankara says the arrest and imprisonment of minors is a cause for "concern."
"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," says the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Brussels had previously expressed concern about what it saw as deficiencies in Turkey's juvenile court system. "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," the EU said in a report on Turkey's progress as a candidate country last November.
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, have ended up having their cases heard in an adult court.
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 HRW's Sinclair-Webb says 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," Sinclair-Webb added.
Yilmaz, the 16-year-old in Cizre says he was "changed" by his experience in jail. "I became more aware," he says. "The things I learned in prison about myself, about the Kurds, about the PKK, it was like an awakening."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.