In a report released in March this year by Human Rights Watch, it was found that the Egyptian police, National Security Agency and military officials have been arbitrarily arresting and torturing children while prosecutors and judges turn a blind eye. In the 43-page report, the rights group has documented violations against 20 children aged between 12 and 17. These accounts represent just a fraction of the hundreds of civilians, including children who have faced arbitrary abuse at the hands of Egyptian’s security services.
On May 20, Reuters reported that on Tuesday, Egypt saw its biggest rise in daily coronavirus cases. The country has confirmed over 13,400 cases and more than 650 deaths. As the virus spreads through the country, conditions for children being held in detention are worse than ever. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to inspire urgency in ending the widespread systematic abuse and the routine use of detention against children.
For years, foreign governments have considered support for Egypt’s security apparatus as a necessary means of maintaining stability in Egypt. As reported by Human Rights Watch, the U.S. funds approximately $3 million annually to Egypt’s police and National Security forces for anti-terrorism work, and $2 million for police training. However, the bodies that are supposed to protect citizens are arbitrarily arresting and torturing some of the country’s most vulnerable people – children.
Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch has said that “Children are describing being waterboarded and electrocuted on their tongues and genitals, and yet Egypt’s security forces are facing no consequences.” The report documents fifteen of the children claiming that they were tortured in pre-trial detention, usually during interrogation while held incommunicado. Seven children have said that they were abused by security officers who administered electric shocks, including with stun guns. This mistreatment of children has been exacerbated through violations in due process and unfair trials.
In 2013, the Egyptian army overthrew president Mohammed Morsi from power. The government of president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has since assented to a nationwide crackdown on protestors, dissidents, political opponents, independent journalists and human rights advocates. Over the years, Egyptian security services have continued to arbitrarily arrest, enforce disappearances and prosecute hundreds of people.
In a report by Just Security, the case of Abdullah is used to illustrate the horrific conditions in which children are kept. Abdullah was only 12 when he was taken by security services on 31 December 2017. A few months prior to this, his older brother had joined Wilayat Sinai, a local group affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS).
Abdullah was held in multiple detention centres for the first six months of his custody. He was given electric shocks, waterboarded, suspended by his right hand and forced to lie on a bed frame of burning hot metal. For the next 100 days, he was put in solitary confinement and denied adequate food and medical care. He was also denied family visits and the opportunity to bathe. A police officer at the station he was being held at promised that in January 2019, he would be returned to his family. When his older sister came to collect him, officers denied knowledge of his whereabouts. His family has not seen him since. Abdullah’s story is one of many cases of abuse by Egyptian forces against children and other detainees.
Detention for any amount of time can cause trauma and long-lasting harm in children. Under international law, they should only be detained as a last resort, for the shortest time possible. Egypt’s justice system has failed those who have reported torture and mistreatment at the hands of security services. The country’s 1996 Child Law and its 2008 amendments should be strongly enforced in order to protect children.
As coronavirus continues to spread through the Middle East, the arbitrary detention and torture of civilians is exacerbating an already alarming public health risk in the most densely populated country in the region. Arrests and detention are used as the “go to” punishment for children accused of crimes. This has increased overcrowding in cells that were already inadequate – it has been alleged that cells often lack running water and toilets, with inmates being forced to use buckets. Amnesty International has reported that some children have been held in cells with nearly 100 adult males in spaces so overpopulated that inmates sleep in 6-hour shifts. With such inhumane conditions, the health and lives of hundreds of children were already at serious risk prior to the pandemic.
The Egyptian government must protect its children, particularly those who have been arrested or detained. It must also ensure that abusers are held accountable.