More than 25 percent of all children arrested in Egypt in 2001 were children considered "vulnerable to delinquency" under Egypt's Child Law. They have committed no crime, and are typically homeless, beggars or truants from school. Police often use the charge as a pretext to clear the streets of children, extort money and information, force children to move on to other neighborhoods, and bring children in for questioning in the absence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
"The government says it arrests children to protect them," said Clarisa Bencomo, researcher in Human Rights Watch's Children's Rights Division. "The reality is that most of these children are back on the street within a week, in even worse shape than before. Instead of protecting children, the police abuse them and steal whatever money they have."
The 87-page report, "Charged with Being Children: Egyptian Police Abuse of Children in Need of Protection," draws on interviews with dozens of Egyptian children living or working on the street, as well as police, prosecutors, social workers and judges in the juvenile justice system.
Human Rights Watch called on the Egyptian government to immediately end its policies of arresting children it deems "vulnerable to delinquency" and of routinely detaining children in police lockups. Egypt should also designate a full time position in the Ministry of Justice to oversee investigations of torture and ill-treatment of children in police custody.
Human Rights Watch found that police in Cairo routinely beat children with batons, whips, rubber hoses and belts, and transport them in dangerous vehicles, often with adult detainees. Children held in overcrowded and dirty adult police lockups must bribe guards or beg from criminal detainees to obtain food and bedding. Children who are transferred to the overcrowded al Azbekiya juvenile police lockup receive only marginally better treatment, and may be detained with children significantly older or who have committed serious crimes.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, both in and out of custody," said Bencomo.
Police at adult and juvenile police lockups use degrading sexual language to humiliate both boys and girls, and do not protect children from attacks by adult detainees. In interviews, girls singled out police at the al Azbekiya juvenile police lockup and an adult police lockup as being notorious for sexual abuse and violence against girls detained there. Girls also reported feeling pressure to engage in sexual relations with police on the street as the only way to obtain police protection from sexual violence by other men.
Despite the widespread and systematic violations of the rights of children in police custody, Egyptian authorities do not routinely monitor conditions of detention for children, investigate cases of arbitrary arrests or abuse in custody, or appropriately discipline those responsible. In many cases, children are detained illegally for days before going before the public prosecutor, and in some cases children are arrested and released without ever leaving the police station. Police often do not notify children's parents about arrests, and children who have fled parental abuse or who lack guardians have no one to turn to for assistance.
"Ministry of Interior officials, prosecutors, judges, and government social workers all know that these children are being abused -- but no one does anything to prevent it," Bencomo said. "The government would rather keep these children out of sight than address the underlying issues that forced children onto the streets in the first place."
The vast majority of children Human Rights Watch interviewed were living or working on the street because they had no other choice.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Egyptian government to ensure these children receive the special protection and assistance they are entitled to under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to ensure that arrest, detention or imprisonment are used only for children charged with criminal acts, and should always be a measure of last resort, and for the shortest possible time.