Children Languish Behind Bars

Stretched justice system keeps young people in jail for months without trial.

Children Languish Behind Bars

Stretched justice system keeps young people in jail for months without trial.

Thursday, 3 September, 2009
The boy looked sadly through the bars of his prison cell. “I am not a murderer,” he said.

For 18 months now the boy has been in jail and no court has heard his case. Aged about 17, he looks frightened and refuses to say more. He will not even give his name.

According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in the northern province of Balkh, as well as the inmates themselves, children’s rights are consistently violated in the juvenile correction and education centre of Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital. One of the most common complaints is that the children face long delays in bringing their cases to court.

A detainee of around 12 years old, who has been accused of robbery, told IWPR that his case has not yet gone to trial and he has no idea when it will.

“Nobody cares about us here,” he said.

The juvenile detention centre now holds 21 boys and two girls from 12 to 18 years old. They have been accused of crimes ranging from serious felonies such as murder to minor offences like petty theft or running away from home.

It is true that the court doesn’t decide about the children’s cases on time, says the director of the centre, Mohammad Wais Sufizada.

“But these problems are not confined to Balkh province,” he insisted. “It is a problem all over the country.”

However, Mohammad Sadeq Fayaz, the director of the Balkh juvenile appeal court, denies that the justice system has run into long delays.

“The maximum delay for a case in our court has been two months. It is an outright lie that we have kept cases for six to 18 months,” he said.

Fayaz emphasised that the court hands out relatively light sentences to the children.

“For example, children are never hanged, or sentenced to life in prison, because their act is seen as a mistake, not a crime,” he said. “They spend fewer years in prison than adults, and they also receive education there.”

In the juvenile detention centre the children receive some education and can follow a vocational course in tailoring.

Prison life in Afghanistan is extremely hard, according to the young inmates. Abysmal living conditions, combined with physical abuse from prison guards and little hope for a swift trial make for a very difficult time.

Ewaz Ali Saberi, deputy director of the human rights commission in Balkh, has investigated the situation in the juvenile detention centre in Mazar-e-Sharif. He confirmed the majority of the children’s allegations.

“Sometimes it happens that a child is sentenced to two years in prison by the primary court, but the case does not reach the appeals court for more than two years,” he said.

Saberi points to other problems as well. For example, the children are put together in cells regardless of the severity of their crimes. So a boy who ran away from home could be sharing his room with one who has committed murder.

“This is illegal, and it puts the future of the children in jeopardy,” said Saberi. “At least 80 per cent of the children who are released commit the same crimes again.”

According to Assadullah Zia, a lecturer in religious studies at Balkh University, it is dangerous to keep children accused of different kinds of crimes in one room.

“These children share their experiences with each other,” he said. “When they are released they stay in the group and commit much more serious crimes.”

Sufizada, who heads the detention centre, confirmed that young inmates are held together in one cell regardless of their crimes due to lack of space. But he rejects any notion that this could contribute to recidivism or, worse, to an innocent child being corrupted by his cellmates.

“It is not true that the majority of these children will break the law again,” he said. “In fact, our data shows that only two percent of the juvenile detainees commit crimes once they are released.”

A tired-looking woman in a black scarf sits in front of the gate at the juvenile detention centre. She says she is waiting for the guard to call her so she can see her son, who was arrested for robbery more than a year ago. She has been coming to see him ever since his arrest and every time, she said, the guards tell her that her son will soon be released.

“But he is still in jail,” she said.

Najibullah Frotan is an IWPR trainee in Balkh province.
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