YUKSEKOVA, Turkey: Metin, a 16-year-old Kurdish boy with a shy smile and small, vivacious eyes is already a veteran of Turkey's prisons for terrorist suspects.
On his way to school one morning last year Metin, who was 15 at the time, was detained by police in this bleak town in Turkey's impoverished southeast, and accused him of being a member of the PKK Kurdish separatist rebel group.
Metin waited 5 months for a trial in a crowded high-security prison where he shared a bed with two or three other child inmates. He was then released by a judge, only to be detained months later, this time accused of taking part in a protest.
"They showed me a picture of somebody throwing stones but it wasn't me. I have never taken part in a protest," Metin said.
"The conditions were very bad. It was freezing cold in winter and in summer we couldn't take showers. Police were rough and pressured us to confess we were supporters of the PKK."
Hundreds of children — some as young as 11, according to Kurdish lawyers — have been prosecuted by Turkish authorities fighting Kurdish rebels in the restless southeast. International human rights groups say Turkey's anti-terrorist laws violate UN conventions on children.
Activists say the children are sent to adult prisons after receiving long sentences in anti-terrorist courts, where files are secret and lawyers have little access to their clients.
Metin, who has dropped out of school and wanders in dusty, traffic-choked streets, considers himself lucky to have been freed again. But he can still serve up to 15 years if convicted in three pending trials.
A generation growing up in prison
"An entire generation is growing up in prison," said Ismail Durgun, head of the Hakkari Bar Association, which has defended many "stone-throwing children," as they are known in Turkey.
"The state is not punishing the children, but is punishing itself. When they enter prison they are just kids. When they leave they are militants," Durgun said.
Durdu Kavak, the chief prosecutor in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast and where most cases are heard, told Reuters he was not authorized to speak on the cases unless he received special permission from the justice minister in Ankara.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, which has passed laws to expand the rights of Kurds in the hope of ending a decades-long conflict with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), says such punishments need to be changed.
A bill to reduce penalties for children accused of terrorist-related offenses and stipulating that minors be put on trial in juvenile courts is being debated in parliament.
"We do not want to lose our kids. We want to win them back but families must be aware of the consequences of their children's actions," Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said, repeating an official line that children are used by the PKK.
Activists fear the bill might fall hostage to nationalist passions after a recent upsurge in PKK violence. With elections 12 months or less away and public outcry over separatist violence growing, opposition members have criticized the timing of the legislation and debate has been tense.
No fair trial
Durgun said that merely attending a protest in favor of the PKK is grounds for being charged with belonging to the group and with spreading its propaganda. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and Washington.
"These children don't get a fair trial. The files are secret so we can't prepare the case and sometimes there is no evidence. Children don't even understand whey they are in prison," Durgun said.
The Kurdish children's story is a reminder of the social and economic problems blighting Turkey's southeast, long a hindrance to the Muslim nation's hopes of joining the EU.
Unemployment in the provincial capital Hakkari, where half its 256,000 people are below the age of 19, is 70 percent.
Resentment toward the state runs deep and violent protests in favor of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan are common.
Analysts say the authorities' approach is making the problem worse by fostering young militants.
After being indoctrinated in prison by older inmates, Dilges speaks earnestly of the Kurdish struggle, amnesty and political rights, his braces and acne betraying that he just turned 18.
He said he was handcuffed and hanged from a ceiling to force him to confess to a PKK attack he said he had nothing to do with.
Tough law enforcement helps to swell the ranks of the PKK, seen by many local people as the defender of Kurdish rights, as their hopes of a political solution have faded.
Velat, a lanky 17-year-old boy with freckles, was detained in March in the dead of night at his family home, a dwelling of uneven walls and dirt floors. Outside, hens strutted among barefoot children; a military helicopter roared overhead.
"Police said he took part in a protest and took him away," said Velat's mother, Kudret, fighting back tears and cradling a picture of her son in the prison yard.
"He is a good boy. He never got in trouble. He didn't go to school because he has been working since 10 to support his younger brothers and sisters. His father is disabled."
The family moved to Yuksekova after being expelled from their village by the military in the 1980s, when hundreds of villages were evacuated during the peak of PKK violence.
She said Velat is waiting trial in a prison 300 km (180 miles) away from home. Unable to understand Turkish, Kudret said she is at a loss to deal with Turkey's labyrinthine legal system.
A neighbor said 32 youths recently left the town to join the PKK across the border with Iraq. "They went to the mountains. The parents don't know. What else can the kids do?"