(New York) Children accused of committing criminal offenses in Pakistan are routinely tortured by police, Human Rights Watch said today. Many of these children go on to spend months or even years in overcrowded detention facilities awaiting the conclusion of their trials.
Research and interviews for the 147-page Report, "Prison Bound: The Denial of Juvenile Justice in Pakistan," were conducted before the October military coup which deposed the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Human Rights Watch has no evidence that the treatment of juvenile detainees has improved since the coup.
The treatment of children in detention violates Pakistani law, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly ten years ago this Saturday and ratified by Pakistan a year later.
Despite a law that requires police to bring criminal suspects before a judge within twenty-four hours of arrest, children may spend as long as three months in detention before seeing a judge. Children share their cells with adults while in police custody, and like adult detainees, are routinely subjected to various forms of torture or ill-treatment, including being beaten, hung upside down, or whipped with a rubber strap or specially-designed leather slipper.
In May 1998, Ghulam Jillani, a thirteen-year-old boy, died after prolonged torture in a police station in the northern town of Mansehra. Riots following Jillani's funeral prompted provincial authorities to arrest the head constable of the Mansehra police station and order a judicial investigation into the boy's death. But far more often, police abuses against child detainees go unreported and unpunished.
Human Rights Watch said that children who are tortured have no impartial authority to whom they can report their grievances.
"Pakistani authorities have to address this justice crisis for children," said Lois Whitman, executive director of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "It's a matter of the utmost urgency. Such treatment cannot remain the norm."
More than 3700 children were in Pakistan prisons at the end of 1997. About 90 percent were awaiting the conclusion of their trials—a process that can take months or even years due to the delayed submission of police investigation reports and the frequent adjournment of hearings.
The few children who are ultimately convicted tend to receive harsh, retributive sentences. In February 1998, there were fifty-five children on death row in Punjab province. Death sentences imposed on juveniles are usually commuted on appeal, although Pakistan is one of only six countries that are known to have executed juvenile offenders during the 1990s. The Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly prohibits imposing the death penalty on children under the age of eighteen.
Most of the facilities in which children are held suffer from severe overcrowding. The juvenile ward of Lahore District Jail, which Human Rights Watch researchers visited, holds nearly three times as many children as it was designed for. Children in the jail sleep without mattresses on bare cement floors, or on raised cement blocks that serve as beds. Most prisons offer few educational or vocational training opportunities, other than religious instruction. Although prisons in Pakistan's major cities have segregated wards for juveniles, children are housed with adults in some of the country's smaller jails. Human Rights Watch also gathered credible accounts of sexual abuse of juveniles by prison guards as well as the involvement of guards in supplying illegal drugs to inmates, including children.
Two of Pakistan's four provinces, Punjab and Sindh, have laws providing for the establishment of juvenile courts and vocational training schools, but these have largely not been implemented. Only in the city of Karachi, which has both a functioning juvenile court and a separate juvenile institution, are the rudiments of a juvenile justice system in place.
Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistani authorities to establish independent bodies to hear and investigate complaints of abuse by police and prison personnel, and to ensure the strict separation of adults and children deprived of their liberty. Authorities should also provide sufficient teaching staff and modern vocational training in each facility housing juveniles, and prohibit imposition of the death penalty on children under the age of eighteen.
For more information contact:
Vikram Parekh (212) 216-1237
Lois Whitman (212) 216-1239