Palestinian Child Prisoners
Since 1967, Palestinian children have been living under Israeli military law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They have been detained and prosecuted in military courts, without the special protections for detained minors outlined by international law. Every year, about 700 Palestinian minors are arrested and interrogated and detained by the Israeli army. B’tselem found that by the end of August 2016, 319 Palestinian children were held as security detainees or prisoners in Israeli prisons. Since 2000, around 12,000 Palestinian children have been detained and prosecuted in Israeli military courts. Israeli children never go through the military court system. Palestinian children are usually charged with throwing stones, which can warrant a 20 year sentence under Israeli military law. Palestinian minors that are arrested are subjected to numerous human rights violations, including physical violence during arrest and interrogation, not being told their rights to legal counsel, being made to sign confessions in Hebrew (a language many Palestinian children do not speak,) solitary confinement for extended periods of time, and many more injustices.
Many arrests of Palestinian children take place in the middle of the night at the minors’ homes, while others happen near the homes at roads used by settlers, or at checkpoints. When they take place at night, the children and their families wake up to heavily armed Israeli soldiers banging loudly on their doors and shouting at them to leave the house. The soldiers frequently break down the front door, along with furniture and windows. The soldiers often beat the children severely, and sometimes shoot them during the arrest, in front of their families. The minors are also shackled or blindfolded, and are not allowed to change to appropriate clothing. The families and children are rarely, if ever, informed as to what will happen to their child or where they are being taken. The families are usually forced to stand outside in the middle of the night watching their child being forcibly taken from the home. This experience is very disorienting and disturbing for the children and their families. The children arrive at the interrogation centers, without a lawyer or family members, injured, sleep-deprived, and frightened, and often have to wait until after daybreak to be moved into a detention centre.
The Working Group on Grave Violations against Children gathered 208 testimonies from minors on the ill-treatment they experienced at the hands of the IDF, ISA, IPS, and Israeli Police while under military detention. 144 children testified to having been intimidated and verbally abused during arrest, while 171 children reported being subjected to physical violence and abuse while being arrested. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with Palestinian children that were arrested in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, and each reported having undergone unnecessary force while being arrested.
The children are often subjected to ill-treatment not only during the arrest, but during the journey to the detention or interrogation centre. They can suffer injuries and bruising due to being physically restrained (with plastic hand ties) and forced to lie on the floor of the vehicle. The journey often takes many hours, and includes stopping at military bases or checkpoints. Medical personnel come check on the children in these stops, but they rarely conduct physical examinations, and medical attention is not provided even to the marks left from beatings or plastic ties. Further negligence of the children occurs, such as prolonged exposure to the elements, or not being given water and food.
Interrogation methods and legal process
The mistreatment continues upon the arrival of the children to the detention centre or interrogation centre. The Institute for Middle East Understanding reported that 70% of Palestinian children that are arrested are strip-searched after their arrest. The interrogation begins soon after they arrive, and the children are never accompanied by a family member or lawyer, even though article 37(d) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that children under arrest must have prompt access to “legal and other appropriate assistance.” The minors are not made aware of their legal rights, such as the right against self-incrimination. The Working Group on Grave Violations against Children found that 163 children reported not being properly informed of their legal right to counsel or right to remain silent.
Most children report being mistreated and having confessions forcibly extracted from them during interrogation. There is no third-party monitoring or independent oversight of the interrogation process. The mistreatment is varied, with most children reporting experiencing physical violence, including kicking, slapping, and pushing. Children are also restrained during interrogation, sometimes for extended periods of time in painful positions, leading to great back, hand, and leg pain. Verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats are also employed. Children have been threatened with violence, sexual assault, death, or imprisonment, against their family members or themselves. Addameer has documented reports of children who have been sexually assaulted or threatened with sexual assault by Israeli soldiers or ISA officers. The sexual assaults have many forms, “including the form of grabbing a child’s testicles and threats of rape or sodomy with an object.” These various threats and acts of violence serve to extract a confession from the child, who may do this to stop this torture or to protect themselves or their family, as the threats lead them to believe their cooperation will prevent this from happening to their families. Often, the children have to sign forms that contain their confession, but the forms are usually in Hebrew, which most Palestinian children living in the West Bank do not understand. All these interrogation methods go against the international protections for imprisoned minors, including requirements that a child can only be arrested or detained as a last resort and that it is forbidden for children to be compelled to confess guilt. The methods and ill-treatment of the children also against article 37(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that “no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Children in Israeli prisons are also forced to undergo extended periods of solitary confinement. Internationally, the use of solitary confinement for minors is used exclusively as a disciplinary measure or to separate the minors from adults. However, Israeli officials use it as a method in the interrogation process to extract a forced confession. The DCI documented 54 cases between 2012 and 2014 of minors being subjected to solitary confinement and found that the average time an individual child spent under solitary confinement was 11 days. The longest amount of time was 29 days in 2012. The children are often kept in windowless cells, only allowed to leave for interrogation, during which they are usually bound and restrained. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has said that solitary confinement used to obtain information, especially in the case of minors, is cruel, inhumane, and degrading, making this another violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
When the children are brought to court, they are shackled and chained, which goes against the Convention of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which requires chains and irons never to be used, and to only use restrains “as a precaution against escape during transfer, provided that they shall be removed when the prisoner appears before a judicial or administrative body. This is usually the first time the children can see their lawyers.
The military court judge can extend the minor’s initial four-day detention period for another period no more than 30 days. Whenever the period expires, it can be extended again up to 188 days, with a judge reviewing the detention every 30 days. This can keep being extended indefinitely, forcing children to plead guilty to escape the cycle. The evidence used against the child is usually the confession forcibly extracted during interrogation and as a result of being under duress. International law strictly forbids the use of evidence extracted under duress and as a result of ill-treatment by a court. However, rarely will children bring this up in court for fear that mentioning it will result in the judge extending their sentence.
The children are often transferred to prisons in Israeli territory. This makes it very difficult for the minors’ families to be able to visit them, because if they are West Bank residents they will have to apply for a permit, which takes a lot of time and may not even come out. This breaks article 76 of the Geneva Convention which states that “protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.” It also breaks article 37(c) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that a minor in detention “shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances.”