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Concerns over child detention conditions in Kandahar

Prevalent unemployment, poverty and illiteracy force some Afghan youths to drug addiction, illegal migration or to the arms of the insurgents, experts say
Unemployment, poverty and illiteracy force some young Afghans to join the ranks of insurgents, experts say (Salih/IRIN)

A government plan to relocate an all-boys juvenile rehabilitation centre (JRC) in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, from the city centre to a site near Sarposa prison, where top Taliban leaders are held, could expose the children to significant risk, according to observers.

The Kandahar JRC in its current site holds 20 to 55 boys at a time, some as young as seven, in cramped and insanitary conditions. According to the Child Rights Consortium (CRC), a program managed by Terre des Hommes in conjunction with Afghan NGOs, the centre "gathers a large number of youths who should not be in custody: the offence they committed is often trifling, or the legal age of detention is not respected". It also offers no educational, vocational or recreational activities.

"The director explained that they own sewing machines for vocational training, but the last tailoring teacher moved to another position in the prison for financial reasons and was not replaced. And although the director assured the visitors that books are at least available, the children categorically contradicted this," the Consortium said following a visit to the centre in August 2011.

Other sources said the centre lacks adequate bed space and food, and there have been complaints of pilfering of some of the donations it receives. “The winter aid donations made to the centre, such as rice cookers and tables, cannot be found anywhere,” said one aid worker who makes frequent visits to the centre.

Drug use, sexual abuse and torture are reportedly ongoing problems, with guards, who are government employees, accused of providing drugs in exchange for sexual favors. Recently a boy was shot by one of the guards who was said to have had problems with the juvenile.

Initially, the justice ministry - then in charge of detention facilities - had decided to relocate the centre to a space inside the Sarposa maximum security prison. The move was cancelled when Afghan President Hamid Karzai in January transferred responsibility for prisons from justice to the interior ministry.

But the proposed new site is only marginally better: a building close to Sarposa offered by the US-funded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar. Locating a JRC anywhere close to the maximum security prison, observers said, was totally inappropriate.

''The director explained that they own sewing machines for vocational training, but the last tailoring teacher moved to another position in the prison for financial reasons and was not replaced. And although the director assured the visitors that books are at least available, the children categorically contradicted this''

“We naturally have a concern about security, about transferring the kids to a location where there would be greater risk, and about the facilities in general and whether the facilities themselves are appreciably better or have greater capacity so there is no overcrowding,” said James Rodehaver, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). He also expressed concern over the sustainability of long-term funding for the proposed new centre.

Taliban risk

Sarposa prison was attacked in 2008 and again in April 2011, resulting in the escape of hundreds of Taliban commanders. The first attack was preceded by inmates stitching their mouths shut in a protest against what they claimed was their unlawful detention and unfair trials.

“Behind Sarposa, in Police District 8, is a small town named Kargonic,” said an Afghan journalist who preferred anonymity. “Kargonic is connected to Pirpaymal village in Arghandab District where the Taliban are very active. Because Kargonic borders this area insurgents sometimes plan and carry out attacks here.”

Government officials in Kandahar said the city administration was applying pressure on all parties to accept the new facility due to funding constraints. “The land has already been submitted for judicial review,” said Zelmai Ayoubi, spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. “It is at the provincial level. We have the land but are looking for donors to help with construction.”

Hundreds held

Hundreds of children are held in JRCs across Afghanistan. As at May 2011, almost 800 (including approximately 100 girls), aged 12 to 18 were being held in 31 centres, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.  But 29 were located in rented properties that had not been designed to house juveniles and lacked rehabilitation programmes or recreational facilities.

"In Juvenile Rehabilitation Centres children’s basic needs are not met," said the NGO War Child. "Many children are not provided with a medical check-up before being placed in detention and those who become sick struggle to access to medical attention. The food is not nutritionally adequate, there’s nowhere to play and no toys or equipment to play with. Children also struggle to get an education as many facilities lack books, pens and writing paper."

Yet, according to the CRC, the juvenile justice system in Afghanistan has evolved over the last decade.

"The legal framework has been enriched with some of the most important international standards, such as the principle of detention as last resort (Art. 40 of the United Nations Child Rights Convention) and the principles guaranteeing a fair trial and a due process of law," it said. The 2005 Afghan Juvenile Code, for example, raised the age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12 years old and defined alternatives to detention such as performing social services, conditional suspension of punishment or home confinement, the rights group noted.

"Until recently, these alternatives to detention have hardly been used by judges and prosecutors; the predominant trend has been to systematically send children to JRCs regardless of the severity of the offence," said CRC. "A 14 year-old child who committed a theft to survive can be detained with a 17-year-old murderer. This exposition to the justice process can have a very negative impact on juveniles."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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