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For nineteen years, Umran Tan worked as a judge in a Turkish children’s court. She expressed her frustrations about the failures of Turkish juvenile law in a much discussed short film. ‘The Turkish system directs children straight into adult law.’

Umran Tan

Istanbul – A Monday morning in October. A prison bus moves up the driveway in front of the courthouse. A group of gendarmes jumps out. Uniforms with green beret, machine guns ready. Then the suspects step out. Two by two, handcuffed and firmly held by the upper arm by a gendarme. Some of the suspects look angry or try to break loose in protest, others seem embarrassed. The last one smiles when he sees his family standing next to the entrance of the building. His aunt and grandfather immediately burst into tears, his father looks away. His son is only fifteen and has now spent a year behind bars. “Without a conviction”, says his aunt. “Maybe he will be set free today, because he did nothing wrong.”

‘Children’s Court Istanbul’, it says with big letters on the facade of the court house. A misleading name, according to juvenile judge Umran Tan. “It suggests that what is done here is in the children’s interest”, she says, “but it isn’t. Turkey established juvenile courts but that really only means children’s cases are heard in a separate building.”
Tan (50) recently retired but her mission is not yet accomplished. Right after she put aside her judge’s gown, she picked up a camera to make a short film about what she sees as the failures in the juvenile law system. “There are no facilities to get children back on track after they commit an offense. They get a suspended sentence, are released and immediately return to their old, usually poor, environment. Juvenile criminals are destined to become adult criminals.”

A place in Gülhane

Tan’s movie, Gülhane’de bir yer (‘A place in Gülhane’, the neighbourhood where the juvenile court is located) runs for no more than fifteen minutes and is sober, with little dialogue. It shows the daily routine in the courthouse. Suspects being taken to a room behind the courtrooms after they arrive from prison. Lawyers and family waiting in the central hall. Every twenty, thirty minutes an usher announces the next case with a loud voice. The courtroom itself is a restricted area for journalists – as it was too for Umran Tan and her camera. “But of course they could not forbid me to film in the building where I worked for so long.”

Umran Sölez Tan started her career as a judge in 1977, when juvenile courts didn’t yet exist. In those days she mostly had to pass sentence on children caught stealing candy. “I had no option but to follow the law, so the children had to do time”, she says. Eleven years later the first juvenile court was established, and two years later she was installed as juvenile judge. (By comparison, juvenile courts and corresponding laws were introduced in the Netherlands in 1912.)
Tan: ‘I was enthusiastic. There were even psychologists working there, I really thought in these courts they would do what would be best for the children.” Soon afterwards the judge wondered what the psychologists were actually doing in the court room. “They should be working in special facilities for delinquent children, but, well, those didn’t exist.”

Her eyes were really opened when, in the early nineties, she lived in Switzerland for two years. That country had special laws for children and she visited the juvenile court regularly. “In Turkey, we looked up to the system in Europe. That’s why on the way to the EU we introduced juvenile courts too, but without really knowing what to do and without special laws. As a juvenile judge, you should be able to make a decision that compensates somehow for what the child has done wrong, but that also takes its background into account. The punishment should be aimed at preventing recidivism. The Turkish system lacks the option of giving a verdict that benefits the child in any way.”
Over the years Tan got more and more frustrated about what she could do for ‘her’ children. ‘You can punish them, but you have to deal with the roots of their criminal behaviour too. Poverty, lack of education, no attention at home, or even homelessness. But this is not taken into account, and the children are treated as if they are themselves responsible.”

Twelve years imprisonment

The Turkish system of juvenile law divides children into two age groups: under 15 and  15 to18. Both groups can get a prison sentence for serious crimes like armed robbery, rape or murder. The punishments are less severe than for adults, but can go as high as seven years imprisonment for children under 15, and up to twelve years for the older age group, without any provision for rehabilitation. “So if you make a mistake as a child, there is no possibility of making a fresh start. You return to society as an adult, too old to finish your education and without having learned anything useful in prison. How are these young people supposed to pick up their lives again? More than likely they will return to crime.” For lesser offenses, the situation is not much better, in Tan’s opinion. Usually a suspended sentence is handed down, “which in practice means that they go back to the environment they came from and become more criminal.”
Since 2005 there have been some improvements: children can now be ordered to be re-educated at boarding school. “But this possibility offered by the law is hollow, since there are hardly any of these boarding schools in existence. The government is good at making paper laws, but their enforcement is completely forgotten.”

Mehmet (not his real name), aged fifteen, could easily go from bad to worse. It’s his family waiting in front of the court house for him to arrive from prison. Mehmet and a friend of the same age are being tried for sexual harassment. The family doesn’t want to give any details, only that there was a third boy involved who was older and took the lead, but he managed to escape from the police. Mehmet’s father, a widower, says: “My son is so young, a naive boy, he can not be held responsible for what happened.” Mehmet’s aunt: ‘He has already been in jail for a year now. The verdict will only come today. There was some delay in the system, I don’t know why exactly. We visited him every weekend. Once a month his father could sit with him, the other days we could only talk by phone from behind a glass screen.”

Proper food, a fine bed

“Hopefully,” (‘Insjallah’, says his father) “Mehmet will be acquitted today, or will get a suspended sentence.” And then what? “I guess he will have to start working, I hardly earn enough to take care of my five children. At the moment, the electricity is cut off because I couldn’t pay the bill.” Mehmet’s aunt: “Sometimes I think: let the boy stay in prison for a while. He gets proper food there, he has a good dayly routine, a fine bed. Of course I hope he will be acquitted, but what kind of life will he have when he is released?”

Umran Tan doesn’t want to say which cases in her career affected her the most. “I don’t want to base my criticism on pitiful stories. There are big faults in the system, and they have an affect on every child that does something against the law, whether it’s a petty thief or a murderer.”
She has been expressing her critical opinions for years, even before she retired, but she got no response from her colleagues. “People just don’t really care”, she says. ”Children’s judges are not especially interested in children and justice. The fact that I got a job there was also a coincidence. You are placed somewhere by the authorities, and that’s it, they don’t look at your interests or competences.”
Besides that, criticising is not very common in the Turkish judicial system. That’s also clear from the reactions of lawyers who are waiting in the hall for their cases to be heard. One lawyer saw part of the movie on TV but has no comment, others don’t really share Tan’s views. “The system works fine”, says one of them. “Children below fifteen never go to jail, older children do. For younger children, there is boarding school too, the law provides for it, so what’s the problem?”

A second film

Despite her frustrations, Umran Tan never considered giving up her job. “I still had the feeling I could make a bit of a difference. By listening to the children, by using the possibility of sending them to boarding school if available, by asking questions within the system.”
At least now she is heard. Her short film got a lot of attention, both on prime time TV and in national newspapers. From her peer group or from the authorities she got no response, only from some friends in the same profession. As well, the film has not had a very large audience: up until now it has only been shown to groups of invitees. But as soon as the English subtitles are ready, she wants to put the film on the internet. “I’m not finished with this subject yet. There will be a second film, I know it, because of the anger I still feel inside.”
(photo made by me)

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