The Egyptian authorities must protect children at risk of violence and abuse while in state custody, activists said during the launch of a campaign to protect street children.
The campaign, “Wa’afa ba2a” (“take a stand”), is a response to the treatment of children in police custody and in the criminal legal system where, members of the Popular Campaign for the Protection of Children said during a press conference on Saturday, they are all too often dealt with as adults and denied the rights afforded to them under the law.
The issue of street children has figured prominently during recent downtown Cairo clashes between protesters and security bodies, when dozens of minors were arrested. Some appeared on state television “confessing” to having committed acts of violence.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented 43 cases of Egyptian children being tried before military trials in 2012, while the Popular Campaign estimates that some 1,000 children have been tried in military courts since the army took power in February 2011.
Street children sucked into the criminal legal process face a host of violations, the majority of which are due to a failure to enforce legislation meant to protect their rights, Popular Campaign member Alia Mosallam said.
Under Egypt’s Child Law children may not be detained with adults or even handcuffed, and are meant to be dealt with under a separate juvenile legal system.
In reality, children who fall into the clutches of the police are meted out the same treatment as adults; they are frequently detained in police station cells with adult criminal suspects where they are at risk of rape and violence, and in the past 14 months they have been tried in military courts without legal representation.
HRW researcher on children’s rights Priyanka Motaparthy described the case of 15-year-old Islam Hamdy who was arrested at random by military police and handed a seven-year prison sentence after a four-day trial. Hamdy is currently being held in high security Tora Prison.
“Under domestic and international law children should always be regarded as victims. The law gives judges a range of measures other than imprisonment to deal with children who appear before them but the judiciary ignores these alternative measures, treats them as criminals and hands down custodial sentences,” lawyer Ahmed Moselhy said.
According to a 2008 study by the Population Council, quoted by the Popular Campaign in a press statement, 65 percent of street children surveyed left their homes because of economic conditions or violence.
Social worker Fekry Osman described street children as suffering from a “cocktail of psychological and social problems.” He discussed the problems social workers face while attempting to work with street children, recounting how a colleague was himself detained with a group of street children by the police during a random arrest campaign.
The Popular Campaign’s initial objectives are threefold, Mosallam explained: to document violations against street children, raise awareness of the issue and lobby the authorities for enforcement of the Child Law’s provisions on treatment of children in state custody.
As part of the campaign the group are establishing a hotline for children and others to report abuse and seek legal assistance, and on Sunday an exhibition of art by street children on the subject of the revolution will open in Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery under the title “We Were There, Too.”