Friday, December 8, 2000

John Stackhouse

Report reveals child torture

Young not safe from 'horrific violence' almost anywhere on planet, Amnesty says

The torture and ill-treatment of children has become so common on every continent that almost nowhere are children safe from "horrific violence and abuse," a new report from Amnesty International says.

From squalid detention homes in India to abusive juvenile boot camps in the United States, an investigation by the human-rights organization found governments almost everywhere are party to forms of abuse that it defines as torture.

In its first major report on the subject of children and torture, Amnesty says most of the world's governments are in violation of international covenants they have signed to protect children, including the 1990 United Nations Children's Covenant, which was championed by Canada.

"This abuse continues to be the world's secret shame, a daily reality ignored by governments everywhere," says the report on child torture, to be released today. "Most children suffer in silence, their stories never told, their tormentors never called to account."

The 100-page report, which will mark international human-rights day on Sunday, found torture of children to be common in most of the world's armed conflicts, as well as at the hands of police, juvenile-detention authorities and teachers.

It makes 49 recommendations to better protect children, including clear-cut rules of combat, an end to the use of child soldiers, independent bodies to handle children's complaints against authorities and the universal banning of corporal punishment.

Amnesty says the most important step governments can take is to clearly condemn the torture of children, whenever it occurs.

The report cites several graphic cases that it says are "probably no more than the tip of a large iceberg."

In Sri Lanka, it describes the 1995 detention of a 15-year-old Tamil girl who was kept naked in custody for three days, "hung upside down and beaten on her legs, burned with cigarettes, given electric shocks and burned with heated metal rods." Now 20, the woman remains in prison, awaiting trial.

While much of the worst abuse occurs in developing countries, Amnesty also highlights abuses in Britain, the United States, Russia and Israel to show that children in the world's wealthiest and most powerful countries are also at risk.

It says Israel has violated international laws by allowing children as young as 12, mostly Palestinians, to be tried for throwing rocks, and sentenced to four months in prison.

In Britain, Amnesty points to the use of solitary confinement for juveniles as a form of torture, and to the recruitment to the armed forces of 9,000 youths under the age of 18 as a form of ill-treatment.

Amnesty says it also knows of children as young as 10 in the United States being made to wear shackles in custody.

Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Singapore continue to allow flogging or caning of juveniles for certain offences, the report notes.

It says that with little official support on their side, children often can respond to torture and abuse only by fleeing or striking back, as dozens of youths did this year at the notorious Panchito Lopez juvenile-detention centre in Asuncion, Paraguay.

After a reported spate of torture in the centre, inmates last Feb. 11 set fire to their cells, only to find that guards would not open the doors until help arrived. Seven boys died and more than 20 suffered third-degree burns. The centre, which is designed for 80 inmates, had 270 children in custody at the time, most of whom had not been tried or convicted of a crime.

"The most common form of state torture against children is probably the beating of young criminal suspects in police custody," the report says.

Often children are detained and tortured as surrogates for their parents or other relatives for whom authorities are looking. In Afghanistan, the Islamic extremist Taliban regime has detained hundreds of children in place of their fathers, who had escaped from custody, the report says.

Children can also be detained and sexually tortured to please prison authorities, as apparently was the case in two prisons in Malawi, in southern Africa. An official investigation uncovered prostitution rings involving police and prison guards who rounded up boys and smuggled them into adult cells, for about 30 cents each.

Thousands more children around the world languish in prisons for want of justice. In Pakistan's Punjab province, there were 2,700 juvenile prisoners in 1998, only 10 per cent of whom had been convicted of any crime, the report says. More than 85 per cent of Pakistan's child prisoners are eventually found not guilty.

But while Amnesty points to detention centres and juvenile homes as common places for torture, it notes "the most dangerous place for children can be their home, where they should be safest."

"They are more likely to be beaten, sexually abused, abducted or subjected to harmful traditional practices or mental violence by family members than by anyone else," the report says.

The Canadian government has already announced a major increase in funding for overseas child-protection programs, focusing on child labour, war-affected children and the promotion of children's rights. Funding for such work from the Canadian International Development Agency is due to increase from $9-million to $36-million over the next five years.

In their own words

"They first slapped me on the face, and then pulled my arms down to my sides and tied a rope very tightly over my arms and stomach. It hurt and I could not breathe properly."
— Firoz, now 10, on how Bangladeshi police in 1999 bound him with rope, hung him from a high bar and crushed his thumb with pliers. He was accused of stealing a mobile phone.

"I cannot describe what they did to me after killing my father. &#!33;"
— a 15-year-old girl in Kabul, Afghanistan. In 1994, she was repeatedly raped by soldiers who killed her father for allowing her to go to school.

"They took off my sandals, lifted my legs and beat me on my bare feet. Later I saw that they had used a black rubber hose to beat me. They told me I should confess that I had pushed my friend from the building. They beat me several times. They also threatened me with electric shocks."
— Hamid Muntassir, 16, accused in 1998 of killing a fellow high school student in Morocco.

"They hung me up for three hours, and all the guards that passed by hit me. If someone does something and they don't discover who, everyone in the block is beaten with sticks."
— a former inmate of Panchito Lopez juvenile detention centre in Paraguay.

"They arrested me and started beating me terribly. Finally, I walked them to my home. We went there and collected my clothes. There, they killed my mother. They made me go, leaving behind my little brother and two little sisters."
— a 14-year-old Ugandan girl who was abducted by rebels in February 1997.

Source: Amnesty International report, Hidden scandal, secret shame: Torture and ill-treatment of children.

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Created: December 13, 2000
Last modified: December 13, 2000
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