4/13/2007 9:30:00 AM GMT
By: Philippe Khan

Appalling photographs of abuse and torture by American guards at U.S. military bases and detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan shocked the international community, but the Palestinians have been suffering harsher treatment inside Israeli prisons since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians’ suffering at the hands of the Israelis is worse than in any other part of the world. Many of the Palestinian detainees are children, who are subjected to physical and psychological torture by Israeli interrogators and prison guards.

Mohammed Mahsiri, a 17-year-old resident of Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, was arrested by Israeli occupation forces almost a year and a half ago. “I was taken to a detention centre and interrogated…The interrogation would begin at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and would finish after eleven p.m. I was beaten all the time, especially if the soldiers did not get the answers they wanted,” he told IPS.

“I was sent to be beaten by other soldiers and forced to stand in the rain with only thin clothes on. They would try to convince me that I did something that I did not do in order to get the confession they wanted. After being tortured at the detention centre for one month, I was in prison for 13 months.”

Recent reports by human rights groups and legal experts document widespread, systematic violation of international laws at Israeli detention centers, where several prisoners are children under the age of 18, most of whom are subjected to torture, harsh interrogation tactics, physical beatings, deplorable living conditions and no access to fair trial.

Although the International Convention of the Rights of the Child as well as Israeli law defines “a child” as someone under the age of 18, Israeli military order system in force inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza classifies Palestinian children over the age of 16 as adults. The lack of protection afforded to Palestinian child prisoners contrasts sharply with the generous rights and treatment granted to arrested Israeli children.

Conditions in Israeli prisons violate a range of international human rights standards. Palestinian children are isolated from adult Palestinians. Accommodation is overcrowded and unhygienic. There is often not enough bedding or even space for the basic mattresses. Food is very poor and often insufficient. Washing and use of toilets is restricted and children lack access to medical provision and formal education.

Moreover, Palestinian children over 14 years old are tried as adults in Israeli military courts, and are often detained with adult inmates – another direct violation of international law.
Latest figures released by Defense for Children International (DCI), an independent group that defends children’s rights, show that there are 398 Palestinian children currently held inside Israeli detention centers and prisons, the youngest of whom is just 14 years old.

“Usually, the Israeli troops invade the child’s house in the middle of the night, in order to frighten the child and his family,” Ayed Abuqtaish, research coordinator with DCI’s Ramallah offices. “Many Israeli soldiers and vehicles surround the house, and other soldiers invade or force their way into the house…

“They intimidate the child to prepare him for interrogation. When the child arrives at the interrogation centre, they employ different methods of torture.”

There are widespread accusations of physical abuse, Abuqtaish says, “but currently, they concentrate mainly on psychological torture like sleep deprivation, or depriving him of food or water, or putting him in solitary confinement, or threatening him with the demolition of his home or the arrest of other family members.”

“Children have also reported that the Israeli interrogators have threatened to sexually abuse them,” Abuqtaish added.

Like the United States, Israel defends its interrogation techniques, saying that they are a necessary tool against the “war on terror”. In 1987, according to Israel’s Landau Commission of Inquiry into interrogation policies, the Israeli government ruled that “a moderate degree of pressure, including physical pressure, in order to obtain crucial information, is unavoidable under certain circumstances.”

“Israel is a state party to the International Convention Against Torture,” Abuqtaish said. “In its reports to the committee, Israel always says that their use of ‘moderate physical pressure’ is consistent with the obligation of the treaty, but, needless to say, ‘moderate physical pressure’ is obviously torture in itself.”

Legal experts, meanwhile, say that the military courts that try Palestinian children are presided over by military personnel, most of whom lack legal qualifications. Moreover, Palestinian child prisoners have no guaranteed right to legal representation and it is extremely difficult for any lawyer to represent Palestinians before these courts.

“The Israeli court system does not look like any other court system in the world,” says Arne Malmgren, a Swedish lawyer who has worked as legal observer inside Israeli military courts during trials of Palestinian children. “Israeli military staff, the judge, the prosecutor, the interpreter — they are all in military uniform. There are plenty of soldiers with weapons inside the courtroom.

“The small children come into the courtroom in handcuffs and full chains; there can be up to seven children at the same time in the courtroom. One lawyer described it as a cattle market. The trial is more like a plea bargain — before the proceedings, the prosecutor and the lawyer have already agreed on the child’s sentence, and then they just ask the judge if he agrees, and he almost always does.”

“There are no witnesses, nothing. And the worst thing is what happened before the child arrives at the courtroom — when they interrogate these young boys and girls to get them to sign confessions to things they may or may not have done, Malmgren added.

Although the vast majority of arrested Palestinian children are charged with throwing stones at Israeli occupation forces, it’s extremely rare for them to avoid prison sentence, raising concerns that the punishment is based on political conditions rather than on objective legal standards.

Hopefully, when negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli officials continue this week over a possible prisoner exchange deal that may involve the release of all Palestinian woman and children in return for an Israeli occupation soldier captured by Palestinian resistance groups last summer, Palestinians will be able to see their relatives, friends and loved ones again.

“When I was released from prison, it was the best day of my life,” said Mohammed Mahsiri, who was recently released from Israeli prisons. “We were beaten every day. The food was very bad. It was the hardest thing we had to face. No child should ever have to experience that.”



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