Childhood lost in Pakistan jails

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Many street children end up in prison with no one to bail them out John Moore/AP

THOUSANDS OF children in Pakistan are being held in prison for up to a year waiting for trials at which only 10 per cent are found guilty.

Often arrested for minor offences such as vagrancy or petty theft, they are usually kept in adult prisons to await trial, suffering appalling conditions and severe sexual and physical abuse. Some are imprisoned for two or more years before being released when the case against them collapses on reaching court.

In Lahore District Jail 150, child prisoners are packed into one, two- storey cell block. One of them, Habib, nine, is accused of murdering his cousin. He has been in prison for 10 months.

The evidence against him is almost non-existent. According to Habib's father, Mohammed, he is the victim of a false allegation made as part of a family feud. Standing less than 4ft tall in his bare feet, with a dirty vest barely hiding a skinny frame, he does not look much like a murderer. His trial might not be for several years.

Even minor cases take months to reach court. Next to Habib squats 12- year-old Mohammed Sidiq, who was arrested for the possession of heroin in February. His lawyer says the drugs were planted by police after the boy's gang failed to pay the right bribe to the right officer. Another boy, Kamel, was 11 when arrested for allegedly stealing 2,000 rupees (pounds 30) from a neighbour in the slum district of Shera Kot a year ago. Again, his lawyer says, there is virtually no evidence against him.

At the moment there are estimated to be 3,200 child prisoners in Pakistan's rotting jails. More than a quarter have spent six months awaiting trial, several hundred have been in jail for more than a year. One child has spent three years and four months waiting for his case to come to court.

The government is beginning to realise that incarcerating children for lengthy periods without trial does little for its international image. The minister with responsibility for prisons, Sheik Rasheed Ahmed, was a political prisoner himself and does appear genuinely committed to some kind of reform. Last month, in a little reported but unprecedented move, he obtained the release of more than 100 children awaiting trial for vagrancy.

"I know what prison is like so I have some sympathy," he said. "The prison population in this country is 10 times what it should be and we are always looking at ways of cutting it down. We don't want these children in prison either."

The minister says the problem is that many of the children are from the streets or from poor or broken homes. "Basically there is no one to stand bail for them. The rich can afford to buy their freedom. But just because there is no one to put up the money for a poor prisoner then I can't just order their release," he said.

No one is likely to get Habib released soon. His bail was set at 50,000 rupees (pounds 600) - an almost impossible figure for a poor family to raise in a country where the average annual cash income is around pounds 300. Even Kamel's father, Nawaz, with his son on a relatively minor theft charge, had found it impossible to get 5,000 rupees.

Many of the 10,000 or so children arrested and jailed each year in Pakistan simply do not have anyone on the outside remotely interested in helping them.

Usually juveniles are kept with the adult prisoners. Unsurprisingly, sexual abuse by other inmates or prison staff is common. The human rights group Amnesty International says that last year 63 child prisoners were sexually assaulted by prison officers. The true figure is almost certainly far higher. There are reports of prison officers supplying child prisoners in commercially run brothels and evidence that prison staff supply drugs to young prisoners and encourage their habits.

One child prisoner in Lahore District Jail, a self-confessed heroin addict, said that, though there is a hospital with treatment facilities on site, he has never been allowed to visit it.

"If it is getting hard to get drugs in the city people actually head for the prisons," said Jan Nisar, a senior defence lawyer in Lahore. "In my experience everything is available there - heroin, hashish, whatever you want. If the inmates don't have it then the staff will."

But it will be hard for Mr Ahmed, who heads the recently created Prison Reform Committee, to make any progress. It is a fundamental tenet of Islamic law that individuals are responsible for their actions on reaching puberty and the strong Muslim fundamentalist lobby in Pakistan make it difficult for judges to be lenient.

For the same reason a juvenile justice bill, which outlaws the death penalty, the use of fetters, whipping or amputation for children, has been waiting for parliamentary approval since 1995. Though international conventions on children's rights have been signed and ratified their demands have been ignored.

Hena Gilani, a senior lawyer and human rights campaigner, said that the problem is merely a lack of political will. "The legislation is there but not implemented. A rapid system of juvenile courts could easily be set up. It is just that no one bothers. It is an embarrassment to the government and to every citizen in Pakistan."