Child abuse scandal shocks Turkish town

Child playing on swings in Karaman, Turkey (April 2016)

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Parents in Karaman say they worry their children will grow up in a climate of fear

At a playground in a conservative town in Turkey, children play on the slide or swing as fast as they can, back and forth.

Attentive parents watch over them.

It is an ordinary sight in Karaman, a central Anatolian town, but you can feel an awkward unease.

This town is still trying to recover from the shock of a child abuse scandal that was uncovered in early March.

On Wednesday, the trial begins of a 54-year-old teacher accused of sexually abusing 10 children in what are alleged to be guesthouses run illegally by two Islamic foundations – one of which, the Ensar Foundation, has close links to the Turkish government.

According to the indictment, the assaults started in 2012 and continued until last year. The children say they were aged between 10 and 12 years old when they were first abused.

The lawyer for five of the children’s families, Oktay Yilmaz, finds it very difficult to talk about what the children went through.

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The trial will take place in Karaman’s courthouse

“They told me they did not tell anyone about this because they were scared and ashamed,” he says.

“They couldn’t look at me while speaking. I said, tell me everything as it happened, do not hide anything. So they started telling it all.

“I don’t want to go into detail of what they said. It disturbs me.”

The case has caused widespread concern and anger across Turkey, especially on social media.

Thousands of people tweeted under the hashtag #StopChildAbuseinTurkey to share their frustration about what they perceived as attempts to cover up the scandal.

A proposed bill to investigate and prevent child abuse in Turkey was rejected in parliament as the governing party’s MPs voted against it.

After coming under intense public pressure, parliament decided on the very same day to establish a commission of inquiry into the alleged sexual abuse of children in Karaman.

Opposition anger was fuelled when the Minister of Family Affairs, Sema Ramazanoglu, said the case could not be used to smear the Ensar Foundation – an organisation that serves the government’s stated aim of bringing up “a pious generation”.

“A single incident should not become an excuse to defame an institution that has come into prominence with its services,” she said. “We know the Ensar Foundation and we appreciate what they do.”

This comment drew criticism from the leader of the opposition Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who accused the minister of “lying down in front of” the Ensar Foundation.

Ms Ramazanoglu sued the opposition leader for his comment and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described him as “a political pervert”.

Mr Kilicdaroglu denied accusations that his remarks were sexist.

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The Ensar Foundation runs this location in Karaman

The Ensar Foundation told the BBC that its local office was running one of the places where assaults are alleged to have taken place, but says the case is being manipulated against it for political reasons.

The foundation has stopped operations at the local office, it said, is investigating it, and would take the necessary steps if any negligence was found.

The second Islamic foundation in question, Kaimder, denies that it has set up any illegal guesthouses for schoolchildren in Karaman.

Turkish law requires that all guesthouses and dormitories for elementary school children should be established by the state.

Both Islamic foundations are under investigation to determine whether they have infringed this law and also whether they had any knowledge of the alleged assaults.

The government rejects the criticisms and accusations of attempts to cover up the case, and says justice will be fully served.

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Karaman is a town in Anatolia in central Turkey

On the streets of Karaman, people are visibly reluctant to speak about the child abuse scandal and its political repercussions.

Some who agree to talk are concerned about speaking out in public and would rather give their point of view behind closed doors.

Once they start speaking though, their anger and grief comes out.

A father of four, Fatih Uyrum, says people are feeling very nervous since they heard about the alleged abuses.

“We wonder whether our neighbours’ children also lived through the same thing, we fear that our kids will be assaulted,” he says.

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The trial is due to start in Karaman on 20 April

“We have children too,” says another local resident, Ismail Tas.

“We warn our kids every morning when they go to school now.

“‘Do not take anything from a stranger, do not jump in anyone’s car, be careful,’ we tell them. The children will grow up in a climate of fear.”

“Turkish people should not get used to such assaults taking place, we have to resist it,” says Osman Nuri Ko├žak, a retired teacher.

“We call on everyone in Turkey to show up in front of the courthouse in protest.”

The trial is due to start on 20 April. The accused teacher faces a prison sentence of up to 600 years if found guilty.

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