Honduran street children face HIV prison perils

Activists say minors have been tortured or raped by inmates, Phil Davison reports
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Oneida Diaz Castillo, a pregnant 16-year-old accused but not convicted of breaking and entering, is sleeping on the cold stone floor of a 10x6ft cell shared by 20 adult women in Honduras.

She is one of more than 200 minors held - illegally, say children's rights activists - in overcrowded adult jails where some have been tortured or raped by guards or inmates. Some have been hung from cell walls by their manacled hands as a disciplinary measure.

Oneida Diaz is receiving no pre-natal care nor been given the public defender to which she is entitled. A delegation from Casa Alianza, an independent New York-based group that helps street children in Central America, yesterday lodged a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, accusing Honduras of violating its own constitution by jailing minors with adults.

Casa Alianza's Latin American chief, Bruce Harris, from Dorset, testified at special session of the commission, which will decide whether to pass the complaint to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for possible action. The Honduran President, Carlos Roberto Reina, is a former president of the court. His government admitted children were being held with adults, blaming a lack of youth correctional facilities but denied torture or other abuse.

Mr Harris was forced to leave Guatemala by death threats a few years ago after speaking out against the abuse and murder of street children by death-squads he believed had links with the security forces. He narrated a BBC documentary entitled They shoot children, don't they? After a wreath with his and his wife's names was left on their doorstep, he moved his base to Costa Rica.

Honduras, fearing an embarrassing and influential ruling by the Inter- American Court, made up of members of the Organisation of American States, has begun attacking Mr Harris's group. The Interior Ministry said it was investigating Casa Alianza for "stepping beyond its legal limits". Last weekend Mr Reina issued a statement saying: "In earlier times, under governments which some people exalt, these people [Casa Alianza] wouldn't have lasted a single day. They'd have been expelled or `disappeared'."

Mr Harris said: "The trouble is, we're swimming against the tide of public opinion in Honduras. People think street children deserve to be locked up because they're an annoyance, sniffing glue, picking people's pockets. The feeling is that every kid that wears an earring or a baseball cap backwards is a delinquent."

Fred Shortland, of Casa Alianza UK, which campaigns and raises funds for street children in Central America, said: "We know of between 100 and 200 minor detained in adult jails in violation of Honduras's own constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of Children. The government itself has admitted more than 200."

Many of the children are known as resistoleros, after a cobblers' glue called Resistol which they sniff and to which many are addicted. "According to personal accounts ... some have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse by adult prisoners or guards," said Mr Shortland. "Adding to our concerns is the fact that we know of several adult prisoners who are HIV- positive."

Mr Harris said 12 minors had said they had been hung with their hands behind their backs in Comayagua jail. "We have also launched criminal complaints against Honduras' two juvenile judges, Judge Sandra Quiroz and Judge Elizabeth Gatica Mitchell," Mr Harris said. "We're charging them with abuse of authority and the Supreme Court will decide whether to lift their immunity.

"Until November last year, they cited a Supreme Court special ruling which said children could be locked up in adult prisons under certain conditions, including that they be in separate cells. But, one, that ruling was anti-constitutional and, two, the judges have continued to jail unconvicted minors with adults since the ruling was lifted, under pressure from us, last November."

Casa Alianza UK can be contacted at 01536 330 550.