Moral Low Ground


HRW Ranks US Among World’s Worst Abusers of Children Jailed as ‘Security Threats’

Israeli security forces detain a young Palestinian boy. (Photo: IMEMC)

Israeli security forces detain a young Palestinian boy. (Photo: IMEMC)

A recently-released Human Rights Watch report detailing abuses committed against children imprisoned as national security threats ranks the United States among the world’s worst offenders, citing abuses committed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay ranging from humiliation and disorientation to rape, severe beatings and attacks by dogs.

During the 2003-2011 US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing nearly 15-year war in Afghanistan, “thousands” of children accused or suspected of resistance have been imprisoned as “enemy combatants” in the ongoing war against terrorism. Children as young as 11 were imprisoned at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Iraq. Both girls and boys were reportedly raped and sexually assaulted, as were older women, by US troops and contractors at the prison. Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba’s scathing 2004 report compiled in the wake of the torture photo scandal tells of an Army translator who raped a teenage boy while a female soldier photographed the attack.

Children have also been imprisoned for as long as a decade at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where widespread torture and abuses have been reported. Under US and international law, the Obama administration has a legal obligation to prosecute the Bush administration officials who drafted, authorized and implemented torture programs. However, the current administration has actively protected Bush officials from prosecution. Furthermore, the US has illegally redefined what constitutes a child, claiming that only individuals under the age of 16 are children and eligible to be separated from often dangerous adult detainees at a Parwan, Afghanistan prison where 250 minors were imprisoned as recently as March 2012.

Twelve of the 14 countries mentioned in the report as offenders are US allies in the ongoing war against Islamist terrorism:

Afghanistan: US-backed Afghan security forces have “detained hundreds of children on suspicion of being Taliban fighters, attempting suicide attacks, manufacturing or placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or otherwise assisting opposition armed groups.” The report cites “routine” torture, including severe beatings, rape, “twisting of genitals with a wrench-like device,” electric shock, stress positions and food and water deprivation. Afghan child prisoners may be subjected to torture more frequently than adults; according to the United Nations, 42 percent of the children interviewed in 2013-2014 “provided credible accounts of torture or ill-treatment, 7 percent higher than for adults.”

Democratic Republic of Congo: US-backed DRC security forces have “arrested and detained hundreds of children suspected of association with armed groups” in what is arguably the world’s most conflict-ridden nation. “Appalling” conditions have been reported throughout the country by children imprisoned without charge or trial, especially at the Angenga military prison in the northwest. Many of the detained children are suspected or accused of being anti-government militants. DRC is one of a handful of nations granted exemptions from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) by President Barack Obama, allowing its military to continue receiving US aid despite its use of child soldiers.

Iraq: US-backed Iraqi security forces have “detained children on suspicion of armed activity, including association with the armed extremist group Islamic State.” According to the UN, at least 314 children, including 58 girls, had been charged or convicted of terrorism-related charges under the law and were imprisoned as of December 2015. Detainees are denied access to lawyers or relatives and torture is endemic. During the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, female relatives of wanted men were sometimes imprisoned as bargaining chips by American forces; the practice continues today under Iraqi control, with victims recounting how “police tortured each detainee with electric shocks and placed plastic bags over their heads until they began to suffocate, seeking information about their male family members.” As was the case during the American occupation, numerous cases of women and girls being raped in captivity have been reported.

Israel: US-backed Israeli security forces routinely arrest and imprison Palestinian children accused of resisting the Jewish state’s illegal 49-year occupation of the West Bank. Some 422 Palestinian were in the Israeli prison system at the end of 2015, with 6 children held without charge or trial in what Israel calls administrative detention. Children report ill treatment and torture in efforts to obtain coerced confessions. Scores of children have been imprisoned in solitary confinement for as long as 45 days, a widely recognized form of torture. According to the report:

Throwing stones—the charge against the vast majority of Palestinian children detained in Israeli military detention—can carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison, depending on the age of the child, plus fines. Many children maintain their innocence, but plead guilty in order to avoid prolonged detention before trial. Most receive plea deals of less than 12 months, and are ordered to pay fines averaging US$400. If families are unable to pay this amount, the child is detained longer.

Meanwhile, the US provides Israel with around $3 billion in average annual military aid, without conditions, even as Israeli’s justice minister called for genocide against Palestinian children and the Israeli Defense Forces kill hundreds of children with each new offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

Nigeria: US-backed Nigerian security forces have detained children as young as 9 in the fight against the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Former detainees report “horrific” prison conditions “with hundreds of detainees packed into small cells” and “common” torture. One detainee held in a lockup called Sector Alpha, aka “Guantanamo,” said his jailers “beat him with gun butts, batons and machetes, forced to him to walk and roll over broken bottles, and poured melted plastic on his body.” Many detainees have reportedly died from dehydration, starvation, illness torture and execution. Meanwhile, the US recently increased military aid to Nigeria, which is considered a vital ally in the fight against Boko Haram and Islamic State, to which it has pledged allegiance.

Syria: Children as young as 8 have been reported among the more than 1,400 minors detained by Syrian authorities since the beginning of that nation’s devastating civil war in 2011. “Almost all the former detainees interviewed said they had been subjected to torture or witnessed the torture of others.” Abuses include rape, prolonged beatings, electric shock, stress positions, food deprivation, battery acid burns and finger and toenail pulling. “Of the 1,433 children the Violations Documentation Center in Syria has identified as being detained by Syrian authorities, only 436 are known to have been released,” the report states. “The status of the remainder is unknown.”

The HRW report notes that its list of offending nations is not exhaustive, citing additional abuses in US allies Egypt, Mali, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Thailand and Yemen. Sudan is also mentioned as an offender. The report does not mention North Korea, which has arguably the world’s worst human rights record and where thousands of children are imprisoned, tortured and brutally murdered in concentration camps for the sometimes real and often imagined crimes of their parents or other relatives.

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