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Rights Of The Child: Children tortured and raped in jails across Pakistan

Ten years after world leaders pledged to act, the suffering of children around the world is as bad and frequent as ever
  • @peterpopham
THE POLICE picked up Ghulam Jilani from his parents' home on the morning of 12 May 1998. Home was a village in the hills of Hazara, in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. Ghulam was 13 and already earning his keep. After leaving school at 10, he worked as a minibus conductor.

The police wanted to see him because they had information that he had robbed a nearby shop of 2,700 rupees - about pounds 33. They took him down to the local police station. His family never saw him alive again.

At 4pm on the day of his arrest, police officer Muhammad Iqbal reported that Ghulam had hanged himself in the cell. Another boy, Sajid, who was sharing the cell, told a different story. "Ghulam was taken away," he told a medical examiner. "When he was brought back he was bleeding from the nose and mouth."

Ghulam Jilani was beaten to death by the police - and when word got around, the local community was so incensed that they rioted for three days. Two protesters died, but the police chief responsible was eventually arrested.

Ten years ago tomorrow the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, laying down basic standards of care and protection for children. But today children in many countries are abused as brutally as ever.

Pakistan ratified the convention in 1991. But a report published yesterday by Human Rights Watch, entitled Prison Bound - the Denial of Juvenile Justice in Pakistan, reveals that thousands of jailed Pakistani children continue to suffer many kinds of abuse.

These range from sex attacks to torture and murder, from confinement in conditions that breed disease to the use of leg irons. More than 80 per cent of the children held in Pakistani prisons are eventually acquitted but according to the report thousands spend months oryears on remand, crowded into insanitary lock-ups with hardened adult criminals, dependent on their families for food.

The majority of Pakistanis are children: according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 59 million - some 44 per cent of the total population - are under 15. And if, as the commission believes, 20 million children in the 5-to-15 age range are not attending school, that is roughly the number of Pakistan's child labourers.

Western outrage about Pakistani child labour has affected only two industries, carpet weaving and football making,and even then only to a limited extent. Eighty per cent of the country's working children are engaged in farming or the informal urban sector, where reform has had no impact.

Among the worst jobs performed by children in Pakistan are leather tanning, textile weaving, tobacco harvesting and making surgical instruments. Children working in tanneries suffer from skin disorders, stomach, kidney and lung ailments, and sun stroke.

Because children are so routinely sent to work, there are many cases of small children being kidnapped and sold for use as forced labour. Captured children may be forced to beg, to pick pockets, or be sent to the Gulf to work as camel jockeys.

Even those children fortunate enough to go to school have a brutal time of it. In one survey of middle school children in Karachi, more than 88 per cent were said to be physically and/or verbally abused by parents and teachers. In one madrasah - a Koranic seminary - in a suburb of Lahore, 14 children aged 7 to 17 were kept continually in chains for three years.

But it is the children in prison whose abuse is the most routine and inhuman. Most imprisoned children are held in company with adult prisoners. At the end of 1997, 3,700 children were in detention; most are held in police lock-ups.

A 15-year-old who spent a month in custody in Garden Town police station in Lahore said, "There were about 25 to 30 people in the jail. When there were more, we couldn't lie down. Whenever it rained, water seeped in from the roof."

Children in Pakistani prisons are often tortured - either to extract information or as punishment. Methods include severe beatings with rubber belts or leather implements, electric shocks, cuts, burns, and being hung upside down.

And although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly bans the death penalty for offences committed by those under 18, in February 1998 - when the Human Rights Watch report was being researched - 55 children in Punjab's prisons were on death row.

The most recent child to hang in Pakistan was Shamun Masih. Convicted of armed robbery and murder, committed when he was 14, he was executed on 30 September 1997.


n More than 650 million children around the world live in absolute poverty.

n Nearly 250 million children work full time, often in dangerous conditions.

n 300,000 children - some as young as eight - are fighting in wars across the globe.