Beirut — Egyptian police and military officers have arrested and detained over 300 children during protests in Cairo over the past year, in some cases beating or torturing them, Human Rights Watch said today. Frequently, these children were illegally jailed with adult prisoners, tried in adult courts, and denied their rights to counsel and notification of their families.
Human Rights Watch found strong evidence that police and military officers beat many of the children and in some cases subjected them to treatment amounting to torture. Children told Human Rights Watch, their parents and lawyers that police and military officers kicked them, beat them with rifle butts, hit them with batons, and subjected them to electric shocks.
"President Morsy's government has promised an end to the practices we've seen over the past year, with police and military beating up and even torturing children," said Priyanka Motaparthy, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "If the government wants a real break with the past, it should make it a top priority to investigate the abuse of children at security officials' hands and prosecute the officials responsible."
The arrests and treatment of detained children violated Egyptian and international law.
President Mohamed Morsy took a positive step when he issued a decree on October 9, 2012, granting amnesty for "crimes linked to the January 25 revolution," which should end prosecutions of many children arrested in these incidents. The pardon extends only to the end of June, however, and does not include those arrested at the September protests.The next step should be to investigate abuse of protesters in state custody, making abuse cases involving children a priority, and prosecuting officers found responsible.
During demonstrations from September 11 to16 in front of the US embassy in Cairo in response to an online film considered offensive to Islam, police and central security officers arrested at least 136 children from various areas in central Cairo, according to arrest data collected by civil society organizations. It was the largest number of arrests of children linked to a specific protest in the past year.
Police or Central Security Force officers beat many of the children during the arrests, witnesses and victims told Human Rights Watch. Officials sent most of the children to adult prisons and adult courts, even though Egypt's child protection law requires authorities to refer juvenile offenders to child courts and separate them from adult detainees.
The beatings of children arrested during the September embassy protests reflect a repeated police practice over the last year of abusing child protesters, Human Rights Watch found. Through interviews with children released from detention, lawyers, and activists, Human Rights Watch documented rights violations during arrests and detention linked to five major protests over a 10-month period: anti-government protests in November 2011 on Mohammed Mahmoud street in downtown Cairo, in December near the cabinet building, in February 2012 in front of the Interior Ministry, in May at the Defense Ministry in the Abbasiya neighborhood, and then at protests against the US government in September at the US Embassy.
Human Rights Watch conducted detailed interviews with parents or relatives of 12 children arrested by police, military police, and central security officers in February or September. Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven lawyers associated with five civil society groups defending children arrested in connection with the five protests, one social worker, and three children released from detention, in addition to reviewing media articles and consulting child rights and juvenile justice activists.
The evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch from interviews with lawyers and relatives of the arrested children suggest that police consistently carried out widespread arrests in response to large civil disturbances. According to local civil society groups, authorities arrested at least 311 children in connection with these protests.
Lawyers from the Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood Conditions, a child protection nongovernmental organization, told Human Rights Watch that they interviewed children arrested in connection with the December 2011 protests against the cabinet, who told them that men in civilian clothing and military police arrested and detained them in Egypt's parliament building and kicked, punched, and beat them there with batons and metal pipes. Several of the children told lawyers and family members that police arrested them on downtown streets although they had not participated in protests.
The mother of Ahmed Mohsen, a 16-year-old boy detained during February protests in front of the Interior Ministry, said that her son was arrested as he worked shining shoes in downtown Cairo. When she visited him at the Abdeen prosecution unit, he told her that the police had abused him in custody.
"His face was wounded and his hand was electrocuted," she told Human Rights Watch. "There were very noticeable marks of something on [Ahmed's] wrists, and when I asked him about it, he said that they [the police] electrocuted him. His body was blue because they beat them up in the police van."
Lawyers and other parents whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said that several children arrested in February faced similar types of abuse.
After protests in September in front of the US Embassy, Human Rights Watch interviewed two mothers who said that police arrested their sons, sixteen- and seventeen-year-old cousins, and two of their friends around the same age while they were on their way to a birthday gathering. They face the same charges as the other child defendants charged in connection with the protest: assaulting public officials in the course of their duty, attacking facilities, disrupting traffic, unlawful public gathering, and use of violence.
"Officers at demonstrations have arrested vulnerable children - street children, working children - and in some cases severely beaten them," Motaparthy said. "There's no reason police should be using any force on people who are already in handcuffs and in their custody, let alone the severe assaults several children say they suffered."
Nearly 20 percent of those arrested in connection with the 5 protests were under 18, based on arrest data collected by lawyers working on these cases, although it is unclear what percentage of the total number of protesters were under 18. Authorities sent the arrested children before adult prosecutors, tried them before adult courts, and held them alongside adult prisoners, instead of referring them to the juvenile justice system, the lawyers, parents, and children told Human Rights Watch.
While police and security officers recorded the ages of children arrested in these incidents, according to lawyers and children interviewed, they did not separate children from adults in detention, nor did they refer their cases to child courts.
"Karim," a 15-year-old student detained from September 14 to 17, told Human Rights Watch that, "When I told [the police] that I'm 15, they just wrote down my name, they said nothing."
Authorities have detained children in the same cells as adults at local police stations, including the Abdeen, Qasr al-Nil, Sayyida Zeinab, al-Wayli, and al-Gala'a stations, Human Rights Watch found. They have routinely failed to inform families of the children's whereabouts, and in several cases have given families looking for their children incorrect information about their child's location or their rights to visit.
In many cases, police interrogated children before they had access to a lawyer, according to interrogation records viewed by Human Rights Watch and interviews with lawyers representing children in these cases.
Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that: "The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time." Egypt's Child Law states that children under 12 should not be held criminally responsible, that children under 15 should not be placed in custody, including temporary custody, and that authorities should "avoid depriving [a child] from the family environment except as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."
Egypt's Child Law (Law No.12 of 1996 as amended by Law No.126 of 2008) requires issues concerning children who are accused of a crime to be handled exclusively by the Child Court, and sets criminal penalties for police or public officers who detain children with adult prisoners.
"It's not clear why prosecutors and judges have disregarded the law requiring them to send juveniles to child court," Motaparthy said. "Judges aren't supposed to pick and choose what protections to offer children, but it seems that that's exactly what they're doing."