A group of students were protesting in front of Mansoura University last year, amid the heavy crackdown on campus dissent. The ensuing arrests did not leave bystanders out.
Ibrahim Reda, a 16-year-old student living in a village close to the northern city of Mansoura, was arrested randomly with a number of students as he watched a protest for the first time in his life, according to his mother.
Reda’s mother, Nabeyat Hakim, says her son suffers from partial hemiplegia in the left side of his body, as a result of severe injury during childhood. “It is not logical for someone in his health condition to be accused of violence, terrorism and confronting police forces,” she adds.
Yet, his disability did not prevent a judge from sentencing him to two years in prison.
Independent rights group, “Free the Children,” claims that at least 1000 minors have been detained in Egypt’s prisons over the last year and a half. Marwa Arafa, the group’s coordinator, says most of these minors have been randomly arrested during clashes between protesters and police across the country.
She adds that many of them face flagrant violations inside prisons and detention centers, against Egypt’s Child Law.
The detained children, according to Arafa, are as young as 11 years old, many of whom have been handed harsh prison sentences.
Abdallah Sultan, who was 17 when he was arrested, was sentenced to life in Prison, along with 23 others, on charges of slaughtering a taxi driver last year. But Sultan’s mother, Om Hashem Mohamed, says her son was arrested in a city close to Mansoura days before the death of the taxi driver.
He was apparently coming from the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in after its dispersal in August 2013. He got off a microbus in Talkha city on his way home, when a police officer arrested him.
“The police officer suspected he was participating in a protest because his clothes were torn and dirty. It took us days to figure out where he was and why he had been arrested. Months later, he was referred to court. We didn’t even understand what the charges against him were. Later on we found out he had been added to the list of defendants in the taxi driver’s case,” she explains.
Both Mohamed and Hakim say their sons are suffering inside the juvenile detention facilities they are being detained in. They are kept with other inmates involved in criminal activities who constantly harass them.
“My son spent nine months during his trial inside Dakarnes police station, where he was kept with older defendants in a very small room. He was beaten everyday by police officers. But all these conditions were better compared to the juvenile detention center he is currently being held in,” Hakim says.
Her son is forced to “serve the leaders of the child gangs” inside the detention facility. “He is constantly beaten, with no consideration for his disability. My son is living a nightmare,” she adds.
Arafa explains that the random arrest of children is endemic among the cases documented.
“Before Eid we noticed a group of children who had been arrested from different areas across Cairo and lumped in one case with no apparent link between them. Days later we discovered that one minor was randomly arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist cell. He was tortured for days to get him to confess the names of other members of his cell. To evade torture, he mentioned the names of members of his football team,” she says.
In other cases, some minors are being detained to pressure their fathers, who are allegedly linked to illegal political activities. “Many minors are arrested during house raids to arrest older family members. When police do not find who they are looking for, they arrest their sons or younger brothers,” Arafa explains.
Human rights lawyer, specialized in violence against children, Rana Younis, says the politicized detention of minors has been on the rise amid the current political turmoil.
According to Younis, these minors face a number of violations that make them more susceptible to criminal activity when they grow up. “Some minors face trials in misdemeanor courts, but are detained with criminals. Others are detained with old people. It is more likely they will turn into criminals afterwards,” she explains.
Even the sentences against minors in many cases violate the Child Law, which stipulates that minors cannot be sentenced to life or receive death penalties. “But we have cases of children receiving life sentences, and others are referred to military courts,” she asserts.
The detention of minors, despite the recent hike in the number of cases, is a trend that started growing following the January 25 revolution. Street children were the first to pay the price of political unrest.
Under military rule, Human Rights Watch documented 43 cases of children being tried before military trials in 2012. The Popular Campaign for the Protection of Children to safeguard street children, estimates more than 1,000 children have been tried in military courts since the military took power in February 2011.
Younis explains that amid clashes between protesters and police forces, street children were frequently rounded up randomly by security forces, and sent to prison for long periods of time before charges were fabricated against them.
She elaborated, “Sometimes the charges are for vagrancy or begging, accusations that are not even listed in the Penal Code.”
But Head of the Social Outreach and Human Rights Unit in the Interior Ministry, Brigadier General Rady Abdel Moaty, believes that the number of detained minors has been “overly exaggerated.”
He says independent rights groups are trying to “insult Egypt and harm its international image,” stressing that periodic visits are conducted by the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, to check on the statuses of those detained in prisons and juvenile detention facilities.
However, remarks by General Mohamed Abdel Wahed, head of the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigations Unit, suggest a different attitude. In an interview with the private Al-Mehwar Channel, Wahed said that 300 people, many of whom are minors, have been arrested in the last five months on charges of running social media accounts inciting against police and the Armed Forces.
“I have a problem currently with minors. I have minors who commit the ugliest crimes but are dealt with as minors not adults,” he said, expressing his dissatisfaction that these minors are tried according to the Child Law, thus preventing them from receiving harsher penalties.
“We arrested a 12-year-old in Nasr City who is an admin of 35 Facebook pages,” he said, demanding new laws to penalize cyber crimes.
Yet, Moaty insists the Interior Ministry is adopting a new “culture” of human rights, where detainees are treated according to standards guaranteed by the constitution and international human rights treaties.
“Why would we bring children and put them in prisons for no reason? We have no logical interest in doing that,” he asserted.
But the case of Mohamed Osama in the southern city of Beni Suef may prove otherwise.
Along with his two friends, Osama was arrested while shopping for Eid al-Adha. Investigations alleged they belong to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group and were illegally protesting.
After being referred to Criminal Court, National Security investigations showed that the three minors have no relationship to the ousted group. They were acquitted last week.
“For their bad luck, they were passing by the same street where a Brotherhood protest took place. Police forces were arresting people one hour after the protest ended. One officer looked at the three kids, and they apparently looked tired, so he suspected that they were part of the protest,” lawyer Osama Khalil, Mohamed’s father says.
He adds, “It all depends on the point of view of the police officer. It is enough to arrest them if he suspects a certain person, or does not like the looks of three kids.”