A court in Turkey has sentenced a Turkish man to 108 years in jail for sexually assaulting at least eight Syrian children at a flagship refugee camp, reports said on Saturday.
The 29-year-old man, identified only as Erdal E., worked as a cleaner at the tented refugee camp in Nizip in the southern Gaziantep province near the Syrian border.
He was found guilty of sexually abusing eight children in the camp’s toilets in exchange for payments of between 1.5 and five Turkish lira ($0.50-$1.70/0.45-1.50 euros), the Dogan news agency said.
His defence had asked for his acquittal, saying an earlier confession to police had been made under duress.
But the judges at the court in the southern city of Nizip rejected the arguments, sentencing him late Friday to 108 years in jail. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 289 years.
The camp, which is home to some 10,800 refugees, has been visited by international dignitaries and is adjacent to the Nizip container camp for Syrian refugees which was visited by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in April.
During the trial, the accused claimed he had been made a “scapegoat” to cover up the crimes of others and prevent a wider scandal.
“I know very well the names of many managers and camp workers guilty of abuse… but I will not say them so as not to hurt my own family,” the Hurriyet daily quoted him as saying.
– Sexually-transmitted disease risk –
Aid groups have warned that Syrian refugee children living in any host country are hugely vulnerable to sexual predators, with discussion of the issue largely taboo.
A team from the Gaziantep chamber of doctors visited the Nizip camp in the wake of the scandal, drawing up a report which sounded the alarm over sexual abuse and the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases at the camp.
Chairman Hamza Agca said there were problems with abuse of women and children, as well as early marriage and polygamy.
“We are worried about the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases due to the high rate of polygamy and early marriage at the camp as well as abuse of children,” he said last month, according to the chamber’s website.
Following the report, local opposition politician Mahmut Togrul of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) filed a series of parliamentary questions for Health Minister Recep Akdag, the MP said in a statement.
He requested information about the prevalence of sexually-transmitted diseases at the camp and what action was being taken to stop child abuse and child marriage.
“Do you think that marrying at between 7 and 15 years has a negative effect on a child’s health?” he asked.
– Afraid to complain –
In another sign of concern, a cross-party delegation from parliament’s human rights committee also visited both the tent and container camps in Nizip on May 25.
Turkey is hosting over 2.7 million refugees from the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Only a quarter of a million live in refugee camps, with the rest living in Turkish towns and cities.
The leftwing Birgun newspaper said the accused was suspected of assaulting 30 children but only went on trial over the abuse of eight as the other families were afraid of being sent back to Syria if they filed complaints.
It said all the victims were boys aged between 8-12.
Turkey’s emergencies agency AFAD, which is responsible for the camp and has won international plaudits for its hosting of refugees, has said it has taken measures to ensure such an incident never happens again.