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Detained juveniles

December 16, 2018


The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court.
The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court.

PAKISTAN and Iran both rank among the countries that execute the largest number of prisoners in the world. However, a trip to Iran last month revealed that the juvenile detention system in the two countries is quite different. We visited the Juvenile Correction & Rehabilitation Centre in Tehran, where there were 160 children including four girls. There was a staff of 141 people to cater to these children who had come into conflict with the law; most were undertrials but many had been convicted. There are 28 such detention facilities for children all over Iran, detaining around 600 children.

I have visited more than 50 juvenile cells in Pakistan. But the visit to the Tehran facility was a different experience. There were no police or guards at the gate. We were told that this facility was started by the Shah’s government in 1968 in an area of around 40,000 metres. This was much before the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force. The government passed the executive regulations for the correction and rehabilitation centres in October 1968 to establish such centres across the country. At the time, this facility was outside Tehran but is now within the city due to expansion.

The Europeans accompanying me during the visit were themselves surprised. The facility has a heated swimming pool and indoor sports facilities where we saw children playing football in proper gear. It has a gym, and, of course, educational programmes. Children attend literacy classes, and elementary, middle and high school and technical classes. All education is supervised by Tehran’s Education Office. If a child is released before the end of the academic year, then he receives a certificate proving his education skills. Literacy classes are compulsory for illiterate children; however, education beyond literacy is voluntary and children are not forced to attend.

We saw children attending vocational workshops where they make dolls, do pottery, artistic woodwork and carpentry, learn auto repairing and computer skills, and become skilled in the tasks of an electrician, barber or gardener. Cultural office experts review each child’s files and decide, keeping in mind the child’s interest, as to which activity he or she should participate in. The technical and vocational training is voluntary and the children take part in them when these do not overlap with their educational classes.

Prisons for children in Pakistan and Iran are vastly different.

Corporal punishment is forbidden at these detention facilities. Solitary confinement, fetters, handcuffs and shackles are something which are unthinkable. There are ritual prayers, and Quran recitation, teaching of religious personal laws and ethical principles but the outlook is not religious and children appear quite relaxed and liberal in their outlook. There are sessions where clerics come to respond to children’s questions about religion.

There is a library, and health, psychological and social counselling facilities are available. The director of the detention facility told us that the objective of this facility is to function like a boarding school and not as a jail.

This is exactly where we in Pakistan make a mistake and treat all children who come into conflict with the law as criminals. Pakistan presently has around 1,300 children in its prisons — about 10 per cent of what we used to have about 20 years ago. A positive change has come about through the introduction of the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000, which promoted the liberal grant of bail. However, the ordinance and now the new act that has replaced it this year are silent on the conditions where children are detained.

Basically, children in our prisons are kept separately, but this is about the only special treatment we give to them. Otherwise, for all practical purposes, they are treated like other ordinary prisoners by the same staff that handles the adult prisons. They are all kept in halls with one side open where all sleep side by side on the floor. The halls are cold during winter as one side remains open. The toilets are located within the same hall where the flush and sewerage system is mostly non-functional. Resultantly, the whole place gives off an awful smell.

The children remain idle the whole day and are again locked up at 4 pm. Most such cells lack TV and indoor games, and the children thus have nothing to do to pass their time. There are no educational facilities, let alone technical or vocational or sports facilities.

Our children deserve better just like the children in Iran. Iran runs its facilities totally on its own without seeking any financial or technical help from anybody. We are constantly asking for small favours from the donors sometimes for a minor item like a computer or a TV. Iran can rightfully be proud of its detention facility in Tehran but we also desire to have something similar to be proud of in Pakistan.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court.

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2018