For Egypt’s jailed children, an ongoing plight

Police arrested yet another group of minors Friday, as protests and street clashes again swept across Cairo and its surrounding governorates. One of the minors to be arrested and locked up alongside adults was Yehia Abdel Razeq, a boy from Sharqiya Governorate.

Despite being a minor, Abdel Razeq, whose detention was renewed this week, is being held in Zagazig Police Station.

Rights groups estimate police have arrested and jailed more than 140 minors nationwide in clashes that erupted during and after the second anniversary of the 25 January revolution. In many cases, they have reportedly been abused by police and subjected to bullying by older detainees with whom they are typically held in custody.

Malek Adly, lawyer at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, says, “Minors in custody are often subjected to police brutality, theft, torture, threats and sexual harassment or other assaults.”

Adly says the state is shirking its legal obligations to protect minors in police custody, under the provisions of both its domestic legislation — Child Law 12/1996 and 126/2008 — and international legislation, including the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, which Egypt ratified in 1990.

A 2012 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said police and military officers detained more than 300 minors last year. Some stood trial with adults before criminal courts, while other were sentenced to lengthy prison terms — up to 15 years — in military tribunals, in contravention of international law, particularly the Conventions on the Rights of the Child.

Both domestic and international legislation stipulates that children be held separately from older detainees.

Mohamed, older brother of 14-year-old bone cancer patient Mahmoud Adel, who was detained from 27 January to 6 February, says, “Mahmoud was not placed in a cell or center for juveniles, as is claimed. He was detained with adults, many of whom are criminals, drug addicts and pill-poppers.”

Randomly arrested

Authorities denied Mahmoud Adel proper medical attention during his detention at Borg al-Arab Police Station and later at the Alexandria Security Directorate.

Following campaigns by media, rights groups and lawyers, several minors detained in Alexandria, including Adel, have since been released.

Dozens of other minors, however, still languish within police stations and prisons, rather than being referred to juvenile centers, as is stipulated by domestic law. Some have stood trial before criminal courts, rather than in the designated juvenile justice system.

Adly says about 25 percent of those currently detained are children.

Children’s rights activist Ghada Shahbender says that “when police are arresting suspects, they tend to do so in wholesale roundups. In the process, they often go for the smallest and weakest individuals they can get hold of, especially if they appear to be poor.”

She believes there is a class element of discrimination behind this mistreatment.

Shahbender says many minors “have reasons to rebel against the system, because these children are overburdened by societal problems. They often don’t have opportunities to receive proper education or healthcare.”

These children tend to be alienated from society, says Shahbender, adding that “minors who witness violence — especially in cases where they have seen their friends injured or killed in clashes — seek retribution and justice. If this is not provided, these children may seek retribution and the reclamation of their rights with their own hands.”

“Usually, these children aren’t aware of the repercussions of these street fights,” Shahbender says. “The need for affiliation within a group may spur some of these minors into involvement. Some want to affiliate with the revolution, while others want to affiliate themselves with the state or authorities.”

About 1 million street children live in Cairo and Alexandria alone, Shahbender says.

Deprived of justice

“What we’ve witnessed in past protests is that police usually release children under 15, after a few hours or days in detention,” Priyanka Motaparthy, a children’s rights researcher at HRW, states. “Minors, however, between the ages of 15 and 17 are usually detained with adult prisoners and are not sent to juvenile courts.”

She says older minors are often treated as accomplices to the same crimes committed by the grown-ups with whom they are held.

“Under Egypt’s Child Law, authorities are to send arrested minors to juvenile courts unless they are involved in other crimes,” adds Motaparthy, who says these children should receive rehabilitation if they are caught committing a crime.

Nevertheless, she says, dozens of children are still standing trial alongside adults.

Mohamed Adel worries that his brother’s detention experiences may harm him both mentally and physically, saying his family sent the boy cigarettes to give to his cellmates so they wouldn’t bully or beat him, and LE20 to the “chief bully” in his cell so that Mahmoud “wouldn’t be assaulted.”

In some cases, Motaparthy says, “authorities have painted arrested minors as enemies of the state, even before they’ve been convicted of anything.”

Interior Ministry spokesperson Captain Amr Abdel Rahman says police rescued numerous children from outlaws and criminal elements last month alone, pointing to a report saying hundreds of adults were detained for crimes involving minors, either as accomplices or victims.

The report doesn’t specify how many minors were arrested during protests or street clashes. It does mention that “all necessary legal measures were taken in dealing with each of these minors, on a case-by-case basis.”

Motaparthy says officials have resorted to “campaigns which vilify street children and arrested minors — not that these children are angels. Yet Egypt’s Child Law is meant to protect the rights of minors who are not of age, to keep them from being locked up and charged with grown-ups.”

What’s more, she stresses, the Interior Ministry must refrain from “publishing photos of children’s faces, as this violates their right to privacy. Yet the Interior Ministry does this on its own YouTube channel.”

Adly says authorities don’t know “the ABCs of justice.”

“We must understand that violence against protesters, and especially violence against defenseless children, will only lead to more unrest and feelings of injustice among the populace,” the lawyer argues.

Abdel Razeq’s detention seems to be part of an alarming escalation in child detention and abuse.

“They use street children as scapegoats — along with the homeless and the poor,” Adly says.

This piece was published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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