A local court has sentenced an instructor at a boarding school affiliated with Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) in Erzurum to 119 and a half years in prison for sexually abusing eight students, Deutsche Welle Turkish service reported on Tuesday.
The Erzurum 4th High Criminal Court convicted Hakan Aslankafa, a teacher at the Hacı Bahattin Evgi Quran School in Palandöken, on charges that include “child molestation” and “deprivation of liberty” for sexually abusing eight children under the age of 12 between May and October 2021.
Among those who attended what was the first hearing of the trial were families of the abused children and representatives from the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB) and the bar associations of Erzurum, Ardahan, İzmir, Ankara and İstanbul.
The lawyer representing the children was Müjde Tozbey Erden, president of the Children and Women First Association, DW said, adding that the court rejected a request by a lawyer for the Diyanet to be involved in the trial on the grounds that the directorate was not harmed by the crime.
According to DW, Aslankafa admitted that he sexually abused the children, saying he also used violence against them and threatened to kill them if they told their families about the abuse.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, the mother of one of the abused children criticized Professor Ali Erbaş, head of the directorate, holding him responsible for the crimes committed against the children.
“Ali Erbaş, this is something that will befit your honor. Bravo, I applaud you. Is it your institution or your dignity that was hurt [here]? May God ruin you along with your institution. You are the one who actually causes damage to religion,” she said.
The mother was referring to a complaint previously filed by the Diyanet with Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), about the language used in reports on the sexual abuse of the children in Erzurum, which said that it was “disturbing” and that the directorate was “hurt” by it.
Several of the victims’ mothers also spoke to journalist İsmail Saymaz from Halk TV, claiming Erbaş and the Diyanet for what happened to their children.
“Erbaş should be ashamed of himself. … I get sick to my stomach every time I hear the name of the Diyanet. I’ve made a request to my husband that someone not affiliated with the Diyanet should officiate at my funeral,” a mother identified by the initial T. told Saymaz.
“We sent [our children] there trusting [the school to be safe] because of its affiliation with the Diyanet. Maybe we, as families, are [also] to blame, we accept that. But the Diyanet’s lawyer saying ‘You defame us’ hurt us. They told us to withdraw the case,” another mother identified by the initial Z. said.
Turkey ratified the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, also known as the Lanzarote Convention, in 2011. According to the convention Turkey is not only responsible for prosecuting child abusers but also for preventing child abuse.
Despite the convention, children are the victims of 46 percent of all sexual assault cases in Turkey. Moreover, Turkey ranks third in sexual abuse cases worldwide. According to Ministry of Justice data, sexual misconduct against children increased 29 percent between 2012 and 2019.
An amendment to the Code on Criminal Procedure which stipulates that instead of taking victim testimony, tangible evidence will be required in child abuse cases was approved by the Turkish Parliament in July 2021 with the votes of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Legal experts have criticized the amendment, saying it will make it more difficult for child abusers to be prosecuted because witness testimony or other forms of tangible evidence such as DNA samples will be necessary for a conviction and it would be exceedingly difficult to collect tangible evidence in abuse cases.