The torture of children: the hidden scandal

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Feature by Amnesty International

“He had a pair of pliers in his hand. He kept asking where the mobile [phone] was. I told him I had not seen it... He got hold of my thumb and placed it between the pliers. He pressed it hard and crushed my thumb. I do not remember what happened next.” This description would be horrifying no matter who the victim was. What makes it particularly shocking is that these are the words of a nine-year-old boy tortured by police in Bangladesh. It is not an unusual case— in more than half of the world's countries, children are being subjected to torture1 or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Torture is absolutely prohibited by international human rights treaties, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Children's Convention) and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Children's Convention has been ratified by every country in the world except the collapsed state of Somalia and the USA. Virtually all nations have thus signalled their intention to protect children and their rights, yet few states have lived up to the obligations undertaken when they signed the treaty. The torture or ill-treatment of children is not a social or cultural issue, but a human rights violation which the state has an obligation to take effective steps to prevent. Amnesty International (AI) focuses mainly on violations carried out by state officials, although the state's responsibility also extends to acts committed by private individuals, such as domestic violence amounting to torture or ill-treatment. Governments must aim to prevent and punish torture whether inflicted by state officials or by private individuals.

Why are children tortured?

What most child victims of torture have in common is the complete impunity enjoyed by those who torture or ill-treat them. Perpetrators know that they can get away with torturing children because children are seldom able to protect themselves or seek redress. A child who has been physically or mentally abused will probably be distraught and fearful, without the confidence needed to make an accusation against an adult, particularly an adult backed by the power of the state. Many victims remain quiet because they have been threatened with further violence against themselves or their families if they tell anyone what has happened. Allegations of torture against police officers are usually investigated by the suspect's colleagues or even accomplices. Children in detention centres who have been attacked, threatened or subjected to harsh conditions often have no-one to complain to but the wardens, often the very people responsible for the conditions or the abuse. Children who do complain may be beaten, deprived of food, or forced to spend days or weeks in solitary confinement. Children who allege that they have been tortured or ill-treated are often thought to be telling tales, and their pleas for help are disbelieved or ignored. Children are tortured for many of the same reasons as adults: because they are caught up in wars or other conflicts; for political activism or alleged criminality; because of their gender or sexual identity; or because they live on the margins of society. Children who are poor or who belong to minority ethnic groups may be tortured as a result of discriminatory policing. Student activists may be detained and ill-treated for joining demonstrations or distributing leaflets. Sometimes, torture is inflicted on children because they are the most vulnerable members of their community—abused by the authorities in order to force a parent or family member to provide information or to give themselves up.

Armed Conflict

War is an everyday reality for millions of children. Hundreds of thousands of children are killed, disabled, orphaned, forced onto the road as refugees or displaced persons, or forced to kill as child soldiers. Some, mainly girls, are singled out for sexual abuse. The rape of girls and women by rebel forces has been systematic and widespread during the long civil war in Sierra Leone. An 11-year-old girl abducted from Freetown, the capital, during a rebel attack in January 1999 was freed seven months later. She described being dragged from her home and joined by scores of other girls abducted by rebel soldiers who went from house to house. Some girls were selected to be the “wife” of a single rebel commander, others were repeatedly raped by countless other rebel combatants. Some 4,000 children were reported missing after the rebel incursion in Freetown in January 1999.

Children in custody

Despite the all too evident horrors of armed conflict, it is children suspected of criminal activity—or detained on that pretext—who are most at risk of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of the state. The beating of child suspects in police custody is the most widely documented form of torture against children. In many countries, girls and boys in custody, including those arrested for political reasons, are vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse. In March 1999, “NCS”, a 16-year-old Kurdish girl,2 and her 19-year-old friend, Fatma Deniz Polatta, were arrested and detained at police headquarters in Iskenderun, Turkey, for seven and five days respectively. Both said they were tortured, including by rape and other sexual assault, and forced to give false confessions while in police custody. State-appointed doctors performed “virginity tests” on the two without their consent. “Virginity tests” are both traumatic and inconclusive; forcibly subjecting women and girls to such procedures is a grave form of gender-based violence constituting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. AI is continuing to take action on this case. When children come into conflict with the law, it is most often for minor, nonviolent offences—usually theft—and in some cases their only “crime” is that they are poor, homeless or belong to racial or religious minorities. AI has documented numerous cases in which Roma children in police custody in Central and Eastern Europe have been severely ill-treated. On the evening of 29 April 2000, for example, Tsvetalin Perov, a 16-year-old Roma boy, was arrested in Vidin, Bulgaria. He said that a police officer kicked him unconscious, and the next thing he remembered was being awoken by the pain of his clothes being on fire. Tsvetalin Perov suffered third degree burns to 15 percent of his body, some so deep they required skin grafts. Tsvetalin Perov has epilepsy and learning difficulties, and was reportedly arrested, detained and ill-treated by police on several occasions. His sisters have said that they saw him returning home from police interrogations covered in blood. After the case was made public by a local NGO, Drom, and a local journalist, reports appeared in national newspapers, on the basis of which the Pleven Military Prosecutor's office opened a preliminary investigation into the circumstances in which Tsvetalin Perov was burned. The preliminary investigation was closed in March 2001. Drom has subsequently proposed that a number of forensic examinations should be repeated but this has been rejected.

Violence in home and community

Children may also suffer brutal abuse from parents, teachers, employers or others in the community. Young people who show signs, for instance, or who are perceived as showing signs, of same-sex attraction, are often isolated, persecuted, or attacked, both by their peers and by the adults who should be responsible for them. A young gay Syrian man has told how he was held back after school in 1994, and raped by a teacher who told him he was “a sin to this world”. He fled to Jordan, where in 1999 he was again sexually assaulted. When he complained to the Jordanian police, they taunted him and refused to help him, threatening to put him “somewhere scary” if he ever bothered them again. He decided to reveal his sexual orientation to his parents. “My father became enraged and start[ed] hitting me and kicking me saying that I was degrading his family name [he] threw me out in the street.” He was eventually granted asylum in the USA.

The effects of torture

The effects of torture and abuse on children, and the consequences for their overall social and emotional development, are acute. A child's personality, intellectual and social skills are still developing, and a traumatic experience like torture can alter that development at a fundamental stage. The earlier this occurs, the more likely it is to have enduring and unexpected after-effects. Young children living through a war, for instance, may internalise the idea that killing is the normal way to resolve conflict. Older children, seeing their community or way of life destroyed, may feel they did not do enough to protect themselves, their family or friends, and be overcome by hopelessness, guilt and depression. Children of all ages who have been victims or witnesses of torture or brutality often find it difficult to trust in others, or to form close social relationships.

What can you do?

AI's report on the torture and ill-treatment of children concludes that governments around the world have a long way to go to keep their children safe from torture and ill-treatment, and makes 48 recommendations on the protection of children in armed conflicts, in custody, and in schools and other institutions. AI will keep taking action until the torture of children has been eradicated. You can join the 30,000 people, from 188 different countries worldwide, who have who have registered with AI's campaign website and have collectively sent well over 100,000 messages to government officials. Since its launch in October 2000, the site has featured 16 urgent cases; and 33 individuals featured (from Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Israel) were released from detention or saved from torture or imminent death. Visit today