By Jessica Purkiss*
Ramallah, June 10, 2014—Ahmad was 15 when he was arrested during a 3 am raid by Palestinian security forces at El Far’a refugee camp in September 2013. He was accused of throwing stones, burning tires and insulting members of the Palestinian security service, and was dragged from his house blindfolded and with his hands bound by a plastic cord.
As he was placed into a waiting jeep, one of the men arresting him lit a lighter under his wrists to remove the cord. “I was screaming in pain. But he just kept doing it,” said Ahmad, recounting his ordeal to Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-Palestine), a children's rights organization based in the West Bank.
Ahmad was taken to the Palestinian Authority (PA) military intelligence headquarters in Tubas in the northeast of the West Bank, a place described by one resident of El Far’a camp as “a nightmare for the civilians who go there.”
After being detained overnight he was transferred to a police station where he was interrogated by three police officers - a policewoman asking questions while two other officers sat next to him, kicking and hitting him repeatedly.
“Whenever I said I didn't do the things they were accusing me of, one of them would hit me,” Ahmad said. “I didn't know which one it would it be, and sometimes they asked questions one after the other.”
The interrogator repeatedly threatened him with further beatings if he did not confess to the charges.
The types of violations recounted by Ahmad are normally associated with arrest at the hands of the Israeli military, which enforces military law throughout the occupied West Bank. In this case, however, it was the PA that was responsible for his ill-treatment.
The legal systems covering the three areas of the West Bank vary. In Area A, home to most West Bank cities, the PA has jurisdiction. Legal control over Area B is shared jointly by the PA and the Israeli military, and Area C, comprising 60 percent of the West Bank, falls under Israeli control.
Children from Areas A and B who end up in PA custody report threats, beatings and neglect by forces during arrest and detention, according to affidavits collected by DCI-Palestine.
This is due in part to the fact that those areas of the West Bank administered by the PA rely on a Jordanian legal system dating from 1954 to provide the legal framework for dealing with children. The Palestinian Deputy Attorney General, Ahmad Barak, says that the current law, which has no explicit component on juvenile justice, is outdated.
“It is from the 1950s, before the international system safeguarding children’s rights was really in place,” he says. “The current system deals with a child as the perpetrator, not as a victim. It also focuses on punishment and not on rehabilitation. There is a philosophy behind this that doesn't respect the human rights of the child.”
Not a unique story
Ahmad’s story is by no means unique. According to figures from the Palestinian police force, PA security forces arrested 2,455 children in 2013, the majority of whom were boys. Like Ahmad, several were subjected to violence from police and security officers.
Mohammad was 14 when he was arrested by PA forces in September 2013. He had run away from his house following an argument with his father, and shouted at PA forces stationed nearby. During his arrest and detention Mohammad faced similar treatment to that of Ahmad.
Mohammad was detained for 17 days in three different police stations, both alone and with other teenagers. He was subjected to beatings and abuse throughout his ordeal, and was frequently denied food, sleep and access to a bathroom.
Khaled al-Sabateen, chief of staff to the PA police force’s general director, admitted that violations have been known to take place: “We still receive some complaints from cases of children in conflict with the law whose rights have been violated,” he said, “but we take all the necessary precautions to prevent these violations occurring.”
Limited social care
Like many others, Mohammad was detained in a police station rather than a juvenile center, owing to the lack of facilities for children in the West Bank. The majority of children arrested in 2013 were held in separate cells within adult prisons, or in the cells of police stations.
Salim Qawareeq is director of the Social Protection Department at the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs, which funds and manages the West Bank's two rehabilitation centers for juveniles: the Dar Al-Amal Rehabilitation Center for Boys and the Girls Care House.
“If you were to take a snapshot of the police stations in every governorate at any given time there would be around 25 children in them,” he says.
According to numbers provided by the Social Protection Department, just 300 boys were taken to the Dar Al-Amal Rehabilitation Center for Boys in Ramallah. The few girls who are in conflict with the law in the West Bank are sent to the Girls Care House, which due to a lack of resources also shelters girls who are in need of protection as a result of abuse and neglect in the family home.
Qawareeq admits that some practices are not in line with international standards, citing as an example the lack of separation between children who have committed crimes and those seeking protection.
"We don't have the capacity to separate the two groups of girls. It is against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child not to separate them – even at Dar Al-Amal there should be separation between children facing trials and those sentenced – but we don’t have the capacity," Qawareeq says.
The Dar Al-Amal Rehabilitation Center for Boys in Ramallah is run-down, but has an atmosphere of calm. The center, which holds an average of 7 to 25 boys from aged 13 upward, is equipped with computer facilities, a small outside recreation area and an arts room. The boys, most of whom are accused of theft, have friendly relationships with one another and with the center’s staff, and can receive visits from family members throughout the day. Very few children arrested by the PA, however, end up here: most are held in police stations or in adult prisons.
In 2010, after a combined effort from Palestinian ministries and human rights organizations, movement toward a specialized judicial system for children began. It resulted in the 2012 Draft Law on Juvenile Justice.
The draft law addresses preventive measures and programs, and creates a domestic juvenile court. It also focuses on alternatives that do not include time behind bars.
A further aspect of the draft law is reiterated by al-Sabateen, who says, “our guiding principle within the Juvenile Police Department is to perceive children in conflict with the law as victims of circumstance, and provide as much protection and privacy to them as possible.”
But while the draft law has the potential to remedy many of the failings of the current legislation, progress has been slow over the past 18 months, with the paperwork shifted between the President and the PA Cabinet as it awaits amendments and signatures.
Mahmoud Abbas has in the meantime signed 15 international treaties in 2014, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict. In signing the CRC and the Optional Protocol, a state accepts an obligation to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the enumerated rights - including by adopting or changing laws and policies in their own national legislation.
Rifat Kassis, executive director of DCI-Palestine, emphasizes the importance of seeing these international commitments implemented at a national level, saying, “Without national laws reflecting international standards, the reality for children in the juvenile justice system will not change.”
Meanwhile for Ahmad, the future remains uncertain.
After being detained for 15 days, paying 300 Jordanian dinars ($423) in bail costs and signing a confession that he was not allowed to read, he is still awaiting a final decision from the court. According to one of his lawyers, he could be sentenced to 90 days in prison.
“I am worried that if this is true my school year will suffer,” Ahmad says, “and I will have to go through more bad treatment.”
Until the PA legal system respects the rights of the child, Ahmad’s experience will remain a reality for many more Palestinian children in the West Bank.
- Jessica Purkiss is a freelance contributor to Defense for Children International Palestine.