A year after the ‘Arab Spring’ protests began in Tunisia and Egypt, people across the Middle East and North Africa are continuing to stand up and protest against repressive regimes, often facing brutal suppression in response.
Many children across the region have suffered as a result of the brutal crackdown on protests – as protestors, as bystanders and even as refugees, fleeing from the violence. Reports from both Syria and Bahrain tell of children being detained, injured and killed by security forces.
We have seen the intensifying of violence in Syria recently, with the brutal military assault on the city of Homs, where 246 people (including at least 17 children) are reported to have been killed since Friday 3rd February.
This follows almost a year of relentless repression since March 2011, as the Syrian government has tried to stifle the increasing numbers of pro-reform protests.
An Amnesty Report published early this year described how the Syrian army and security forces have used excessive force against protestors and even mourners at the funerals of protestors, using snipers and military vehicles in residential areas. By mid December 2011 more than 3,800 people had reportedly died, including 200 children. Children have also been victims of arrest and violence in detention. Security forces sometimes swept through areas, searching all houses and arresting all males aged over 15. At least 190 people, including children, have died in custody, in many cases with evidence that torture contributed to their deaths.
An August 2011 Amnesty Report on deaths in custody in Syria found that the ages of victims reported to have died in custody ranged from 13 to 72.
Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, aged 13, joined many hundreds of people from al-Jeeza and other villages around the south-western governorate of Dera’a in peaceful marches towards the city on 29 April 2011. Protestors were attacked by Syrian security forces, who shot at them and arrested several hundred people.
Hamza was one of many who went missing and was later reported to be held by the Air Force Intelligence. On 24 May his family received a phone call to say that there was a body in the al-Jeeza Hospital Morgue which they should see. A relative went to the morgue and identified Hamza’s body. Amnesty reports that, according to publicly available video images and confidential material made available to Amnesty International, there were injuries to his face, head and back, and his penis had been cut off.
A forensic pathologist who reviewed the video concluded the boy had suffered a ‘blunt force injury to the face’ and bluish discoloured lesions with a central darker area on his chest and the right side of the abdomen which could ‘represent entrance wounds’.
The national and international uproar over his death led to public statements from the Syrian authorities, including Judge Samer Abass (described as the official in charge of investigating the case) said Hamza Ali al-Khateeb died ‘from several gunshots without any trace of torture on the body’. A coroner, Akram al-Shaar, said to have examined the body on 29 April, found it to be ‘of a plump young man in his twenties… and that there weren’t any traces of violence, resistance or torture or any kinds of bruises, fractures, joint displacements or cuts.’
15 year old Tamer Mohamed al-Shar’i also went missing amid the mass arrests and shooting at protestors on 29 April. Amateur video from 8 June showed his body being brought by ambulance to a hospital to be cleaned and prepared for burial. His body appeared to show that his head had been badly beaten and his eye damaged.
Another person who says he was held with Tamer Mohamed al-Shar’i at a branch of Air Force Intelligence has described seeing the teenager being beaten, despite having a bullet wound in the side of his chest. The witness said he saw 8 or 9 interrogators bludgeon Tamer’s head, back, feet and genitals ‘until he bled from the nose, mouth and ears and fell unconscious’.
Tamer’s mother told the BBC that she hoped to see a day when there would be justice for her son, saying: ‘It is impossible that there are humans that have such stone hearts to do this to their fellow man. Even animals cannot do this to people.’
Amnesty International’s Report listed many other children who have also died in custody, including: Abdallah Jiha (aged 13); Basheer Abd al-Rahman al Zu’bi (aged 17); Hussam Ahmed al Zu’bi (aged 17); Hussam Taha (aged 17); Nasser al-Sabe’ (aged 16); Redhaa Alwieh (aged 13); Saleb Ahmed al-Khateb (aged 14); and Dhiyaa Yehyeh al-Khateeb (aged 16). Many of the bodies of these children have been described as showing signs of severe bruising, blunt force injury and burns.
There have also been reports of people being attacked as they attempted to flee the country. The BBC reported that last year the military opened fire on a truckload of refugees, including 7 year old twins Mohammed and Munira, at a checkpoint near to the border with Lebanon. Mohammed described how he had been scared when hearing the shooting, before suffering an injury to his leg.
Similarly, children have suffered as a result of the violent response to protest in Bahrain over the past year. In the Autumn, I wrote about the deaths of children in Bahrain and the arrest of girls seeking to exercise their right to protest.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has reported mass arrests, including the arrests of many children aged under 18, in Muharraq on the night of 1st-2nd January. One of those arrested was 15 year old Ameer Abdul Samad Fathi, who suffers from a chronic and life threatening illness. Before his arrest he was on continuous medication and had to be monitored while sleeping because of the risk of suffocation. There are serious concerns about his condition and fears that imprisonment may be putting his life in danger.
The violence has continued in the country, with increasingly deadly use of tear gas against peaceful protestors and inside people’s homes in recent months.
Fatima Khudair, a Bahraini lawyer, described how anti-riot police used tear gas in her house in Sitra village on 5 January. She said that there were around 12 women and children in her house when police burst in and began to beat them. A tear gas canister was thrown into the room by an officer, and 5 other canisters were launched into an adjacent courtyard. Fatima Khudair’s 7 year old daughter, Maryam ‘Issam Ghanem, who suffers from asthma, was seriously affected by the tear gas and her condition is still unstable.
On 20 January, 14 year old Jan Yaseen Al Asfoor died, three weeks after being hospitalized when security forces fired 3 tear gas canisters at his house in Ma’ameer. He was suffering from asthma and was moved to the intensive care unit at Manama’s Salmaniya Medical Complex when his lungs failed.
15 year old Sayyed Hashem Saeed was killed when he was hit at close range by a tear gas canister during security force’s response to a protest in Sitra on 31 December 2011. Security forces also used tear gas to disperse mourners at his funeral.
Amnesty International has been calling on the US government to suspend transfers of tear gas and other riot control equipment to Bahraini authorities, and is also calling for tear gas and other weaponry, munitions and equipment used for law enforcement operations to be regulated by the international Arms Trade Treaty being negotiated in July.
As the brutal repression continues across both countries, children remain at risk of detention, violence and death. The authorities must end the violence and ill-treatment of protestors and ensure the rights of children are protected. Furthermore, the children who have lost their lives during the violence must not be forgotten – their deaths should be properly investigated and there should be justice for all victims.
Global Day of Action supporting the people of the Middle East and North Africa
Saturday 11th February 2012
For those in the London area – there will be a demonstration for a human rights revolution in Trafalgar Square (12pm-2pm), standing in solidarity with the people in the streets of Cairo, Benghazi, Sana’a, Manama, Dera’a and elsewhere who are demanding change.
Find more information on Amnesty’s work on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA Region) - here
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