Situation of Palestinian child prisoners debated in UK Parliament

[29 November 2011] – On 28 November 2011, the issue of Palestinian children prosecuted in Israeli military courts was raised in a debate on the Middle East in the UK Parliament. The relevant parts of the debate are extracted below:

Richard Burden: […] My final point is about child prisoners. We have already mentioned the prisoner swap that rightly led to the release of Gilad Shalit and of some 500 Palestinian prisoners. The second phase of that prisoner swap will take place over the coming weeks. But there are 150 Palestinian children in Israeli military detention. So far, none of those is scheduled to be part of that prisoner swap. Several recent delegations to the west bank and Israel—organised by the Britain-Palestine all-party group, which I chair, and other organisations—have been to the Israeli military courts where those children are tried. Like other hon. Members, I had already read the testimonies about how the laws applying to Palestinian children are different from those applying to Israeli children; about how Palestinian children are tried in military courts, but Israeli children, even in the occupied territories, are tried in civilian courts; about how many Palestinian children are given bail compared to how many Israeli children are given bail. But I was not prepared for the sight in a military prison—one of the most secure compounds I have ever visited—of 14-year-old boys shuffling in wearing leg-irons and handcuffs for their court hearings. All members of the all-party parliamentary group who were on that visit made the decision that we were not prepared to shut up about this. Something had to be done. Whatever one’s views on the occupation, on Israel and on the peace process, shackling 14-year-old boys is wrong. It is against the UN convention on the rights of the child and it is inhuman.

Ann Clwyd: Earlier this year, I was invited by the United Nations to a conference in Vienna on the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. It was the first time that I could remember the UN holding a conference with such a title. There were testimonies from people that made exactly the same point as my hon. Friend. Children are quite often charged without having a responsible adult present or legal representation. The stories that we heard were very similar to those he is describing now. It is an absolute disgrace that many of these children are in prison simply for throwing stones.

Richard Burden: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The biggest number of accusations is for throwing stones. A range of human rights organisations, including Israeli human rights organisations as well as Palestinian and international ones, and the United Nations have amassed loads of evidence showing how children are visited and arrested in the middle of the night and painfully tied with a single plastic cord in violation of Israeli army procedures. The issue of how the children are interrogated and who is allowed to be present is a matter of real concern. Interrogations are not video recorded. Children continue to be denied bail in about 90% of cases, and many are detained in prisons outside the occupied territories in violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention. Those things are wrong.

Even though I thought I knew a fair bit about child prisoners in Palestine, I came across something last week that astonished me even more. I spoke to some ex-detainees in Bethlehem. Most of them came from the town of Hebron or thereabouts. They recounted some of the things that my right hon. Friend has said, that I have said and that the UN has reported, but I wanted to pursue this issue of why they were shackled and had leg irons on inside a prison.

I said to the young boys, “When did they put these leg irons on you? When did they shackle you?” They replied, “Before we went into the court and before we went into the prison.” I said, “You were detained, though. You were already in the prison, weren’t you?” They replied, “No, we were in the other prison.”

Many of those children are held not in Ofer prison, in which they are tried, but in other prisons which could be on the west bank or in Israel itself. The young man who was talking to me was held in Tilmond prison near Haifa and he said that that was where they put the shackles and leg irons on him. He wanted to talk to me about other things. He thought that his experience was quite normal. I said, “Hang on, how long were you in those leg irons and shackles before you got to the prison?” I thought that it would have taken one to two hours to drive to Ofer prison, but he said, “About nine hours.”

At that stage, I thought that I was getting some exaggeration because it is nothing like a nine-hour drive between Haifa and Ofer prison, which is between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He said, “No, we don’t go straight there. We get picked up at about one o’clock in the morning and the prison transport takes us down to the Negev where we pick up some more from a prison there. It then takes us back to Ramleh where we have a break for the driver and then we go on to Ofer prison. It takes about eight or nine hours.”

I asked the young boy whether he was shackled the whole time. He said, “Yes.” Other young men around the room nodded in agreement and said that that had happened to them as well. I asked the young boy where they were being held. He said, “We were in this kind of prison bus which had rooms in.” I assumed that it was like prison transport with compartments. He said, “It was a bit overcrowded, but we just had to stay there with our shackles and leg irons.” I asked, “What happened if you wanted to go to the toilet?” He replied, “We just had to do it where we were.” This is the 21st century. Irrespective of our views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, are we honestly saying that those sorts of things should go on?

I know that the Minister and the Government are concerned about this matter. I welcome the work that both our ambassador in Tel Aviv and our consular-general in east Jerusalem have been doing to raise awareness of these and many other issues. There is another inquiry going on at the moment into the condition of child prisoners. This is an issue that must not go away because it is shocking to me and shocking to anyone who sees it. It is against the UN convention on the rights of the child and it is inhuman.

I have been raising these matters over a period of time —perhaps I have been a bit of a bore on the matter— but it is only in the past few days and weeks that we have seen a change in profile and a number of achievements. Israel has equalised the age at which a child is classified an adult—from 16 to 18. The age is now equal between Israelis and Palestinians, which is good. It would not have happened had it not been for the pressure that has been building up. The number of Palestinian children in Israeli jails is now 150; it was 164 a few weeks ago, so I think the Israelis are susceptible to pressure.

(dci-palestine.org / 30.11.2011)

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