Among the 660 prisoners cooped up at Guantánamo Bay from the U.S. war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda are at least three who are between the ages of 13 and 15, according to Human Rights Watch. Other sources report that there are half a dozen such kids. They are reportedly being held separately from adults, as required by international law, but Human Rights Watch protested to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that they shouldn’t be imprisoned at all. However, a Pentagon spokesman said the kids are being held for the purpose of gaining military intelligence.
“They have no access to their families, to lawyers, and no idea of how long they will be there. And for children, the passage of time is different. A few weeks can feel like months,” said Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch. “They’re being interrogated by the military, again without counsel or family present.”
On January 23, Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary, assured reporters, “Secretary Rumsfeld has been in touch with the people who are in charge of Guantánamo, and he understands this. So, too, does the president. And the president is perfectly satisfied that the traditions of the United States, which are to treat people well, to treat people with dignity, and to treat people humanely are being kept at our base in Guantánamo.” In response to a question about the children, Rumsfeld said on April 25 that they are “very, very dangerous,” adding, “They may be juveniles, but they’re not on a Little League team anywhere.”
While the International Committee of the Red Cross has been allowed to visit the base, Human Rights Watch says its attempts to see prisoners has been rebuffed by the Pentagon. HRW is studying reports that in addition to kids, civilians are being held there, and it believes that prisoners are mistreated, allowed out of their cells only twice a week.
The longer in confinement, the more likely it is that the kids will just kill themselves. That’s what happened in Australia’s immigrant detention camps in January 2002, where Afghan refugees sewed their lips shut in protest, and one kid after another tried suicide, rather than go on. Already at Guantánamo there have been as many as 25 suicide attempts within the overall prison population.
Last December the U.S. ratified a UN treaty drawn up in 2000 that stipulates no one should be used in armed conflict till they reach the age of 18, and that countries that ratify the treaty have a responsibility to demobilize children and assist in their rehabilitation.
In Afghanistan, UNICEF runs a program to do just that. The Guantánamo kids could get the same sort of treatment, but instead they are imprisoned incommunicado. “If they have committed offenses, they need to be charged and given access to counsel,” said Becker. “They should not be indefinitely detained in these conditions.”
It’s hard to imagine what will happen to any kid returning to Afghanistan after a visit to Guantánamo.
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine