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Children, too, are abused in U.S. prisons

New York Times | June 30, 2005

Last month John Miller, director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said that half the victims of human trafficking may be children under 18.

Children are "at the center" of the problem of trafficking, which, Miller noted, is one of the great human rights issues of the 21st century.

Yes, children should be at the heart of America's concern for human rights. But that concern should start with the children detained in U.S. prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Under international law, the line between childhood and maturity is 18. In communications with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Pentagon has lowered the cutoff to 16. For this reason among others, we don't know exactly how many Iraqi children are in American custody.

But before the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government a year ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported registering 107 detainees under 18 during visits to six prisons controlled by coalition troops. Some detainees were as young as 8. Since that time, Human Rights Watch reports that the number has risen.

The figures from Afghanistan are still more alarming: the journalist Seymour Hersh wrote last month in the British newspaper The Guardian that a memo addressed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shortly after the 2001 invasion reported "800-900 Pakistani boys 13-15 years of age in custody."

Juvenile detainees in American facilities like Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base have been subject to the same mistreatment as adults. The International Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Pentagon itself have gathered substantial testimony of torture of children, bolstered by accounts from soldiers who witnessed or participated in the abuse.

According to Amnesty International, Muhammad Ismail Agha, 13, was arrested in Afghanistan in late 2002 and detained without charge or trial for over a year, first at Bagram and then at Guantánamo. He was held in solitary confinement and subjected to sleep deprivation.

"Whenever I started to fall asleep, they would kick at my door and yell at me to wake up," he told an Amnesty researcher. "They made me stand partway, with my knees bent, for one or two hours."

A Canadian, Omar Khadr, was 15 in 2002 when he was captured in Afghanistan and interned at Guantánamo. For two and a half years, he was allowed no contact with a lawyer or with his family.

Akhtar Muhammad, 17, told Amnesty that he was kept in solitary confinement in a shipping container for eight days in Afghanistan in January 2002.

A Pentagon investigation last year by Major General George Fay reported that in January 2004, a leashed but unmuzzled guard dog was allowed into a cell holding two children. The intention was for the dog to "'go nuts on the kids,' barking and scaring them."

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, formerly in charge of Abu Ghraib, told Fay about visiting a weeping 11-year-old in the prison's notorious Cellblock 1B, which housed prisoners designated high risk. "He told me he was almost 12," Karpinski recalled, and that "he really wanted to see his mother, could he please call his mother."

Children like this have been denied the right to see their parents, a lawyer or anyone else. They were not told why they were detained, let alone for how long. A Pentagon spokesman told Hersh that juveniles received some special care, but added, "Age is not a determining factor in detention."

Some of these children may have picked up a stone or a gun. But coalition intelligence officers told the Red Cross that 70 percent to 90 percent of detainees in Iraq are eventually found innocent and released. Many innocent children are swept up with their parents in chaotic nighttime dragnets based on tips from unreliable informants.

"We know of children under 15," Clarisa Bencomo of Human Rights Watch told me, "held for over a year at Guantánamo Bay, whom the government later said were not security risks." Even if a child is found guilty, he or she should be treated humanely, rather than tortured or "rendered," as the CIA puts it, to third parties that torture.

Miller is right. Children matter. To really place them "at the center" of U.S. human rights concerns, America should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, from which only the United States and Somalia abstain.

If the Pentagon must detain children, it should do so in separate facilities, with access to family, under humane conditions that include the offer of rehabilitation and education.

Finally, the Pentagon should open all prisons to human rights inspectors. By taking these steps, the United States could begin to reverse some of the terrible harm that continues to be done to children in America's name.

(Arlie Hochschild is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.)

 

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