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In 1999, 15-year-old Roushan Mondal was handed down a death sentence for allegedly raping and strangling an eight year old girl.
In 2008, eight year old Arifa was locked up in Khulna district jail on the charge of having 20 phensidyl bottles strapped to her body which she was attempting to ferry from Satkhira to Khulna.
In 2010, two boys and a girl aged 14, nine and seven respectively, were caught in Bhairab having three kilograms of cannabis taped to their bodies, and while the boys were kept in the juvenile ward, the girl had been locked up alongside adults.
In August 2010, a memo released by the prison directorate stated that 145 children were enclosed within 67 jails in the country — a clear defiance of the Children Act of 1974, which states that children cannot be kept in prison with adults under any circumstances.
The 2013 amendment of the act reiterates the same, only to encounter blank faces that cannot tell exactly how many children are in prison right now — that is — how many children are currently going through unlawful prosecution.
“The number stood at 64 last year, but no recent statistics exist, which means that we do not know how many children are currently being treated as adults,” said Advocate Fahima Nasrin, former vice-president of Bangladesh National Women Lawyer’s Association (BNWLA).
Some children stay in jails with their convicted mothers and sometimes lost children are also sent to jail for safe custody, said Shabnaaz Zahereen, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF.
Despite repeated attempts to reach Inspector-General of Prisons, Brigadier Ashraful Islam Khan to comment on the number of children inside the jail, he never picked any of the calls made.
Fahima asserts that even the conditions inside the juvenile centres, dubbed “Child Development Centres” are deplorable, such that their aim of providing correctional development to reinstate the children into society is undermined.
“Abuse is rampant,” she claims.
Former inspector-general of police Dr M Enamul Hoque states that keeping inmates in their mid-teens or late-teens together with children often results in bullying and sexual abuse of the latter.
Director Zulfikar Haidar explains, “Education is not made mandatory inside the centres because the children come from many different educational backgrounds — some have never been to school. We provide teachers qualified to teach up till eighth grade, but in case a child wants to study beyond that or wants to give a board exam we try to make an external arrangements. Vocational training is also available.”
Haider adds that they are going through a process to collaborate with Save the Children to improve the conditions of the Child Development Centres.
The newly amended law raises the bar of exemption from normal judicial processes to 18 years of age, from its previous age limit of 16.
Fahima Nasrin justifies that internationally, an individual at 18 is considered prone to immature, careless or irresponsible behaviour.
However, a loophole in the system that does not mandate medical tests to be done by the police in the preliminary stage to determine the age of the arrestee, means that teenagers are often passed off as being over eighteen years of age, stated Director of BNWLA Towhida Khondoker.
“If the judge has the discretion to be doubtful of the proclaimed age, only then does he give the directive to conduct a medical test to determine the age,” added Towhida.
Both the previous law and the amended law require that a probation officer assist and advise the police in the correct handling of juvenile cases which decrees ensuring that the arrestee is not maltreated or abused and is given a fair trial.
Probation officers are also supposed to make sure the child is with his/her parents or legal guardians throughout the judicial process.
“Never have I seen a probation officer appears in any case. NGOs act in their replacement,” claimed Fahima.
She maintains that there are only 22 probation officers for handling all the juvenile crimes, although an ongoing process of appointing more is slowly on the way.
Although the total number of juvenile cases currently pending or undergoing trial could not be found, Zulfikar Haidar claims that the trial of many of the 510 juvenile inmates within the three detainment centres in Tongi, Konabari and Jessore are yet in a state of limbo.
“Many of those children waiting for the hearing will cross 18 years of age because of the dawdling of the judicial system, and will then be prosecuted as adults for a crime they committed as a minor. This is against the law,” said Fahima Nasrin.
While the 2013 directive restates the 1974 requirement that a fair trial for a minor entails ensuring an environment which does not make the detainee to be “made to feel like a criminal”, but Fahima Nasrin says even the juvenile courts fails to follow the orders.
“The trial is supposed to be held sans the regular courtroom setting. Even the attire worn by the judge, the lawyers and the police are meant to be casual. The language used to address the detainee is to be such that the child in no way feels that he or she is a criminal. Once they feel that they belong to the same category as hardened criminals, it will affect their self-image and it will become difficult to correct them,” she adds.
The deputy commissioner (prosecution) of Dhaka claims that he had sometimes had to produce minors in adult courts as well.
“There are only three juvenile courts for all the cases, thus under certain circumstances this exception is made. We really must have more juvenile courts” he said.
A taskforce formed under the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Social Welfare, with support from UNICEF, exists to making sure children do not end up in jails, and for deciding the fate of children serving time in the Child Development Centres.
A credit on their part has been in bringing down the number of children in prisons from 1,200 in 2003, to less than a hundred in 2012 .
“However, most of the children who get engaged in crime do so because they are deprived of their basic rights to education, sustenance, guardianship and shelter, and the amended law is a reflection of the fact that many children are growing up victims to their social circumstances,” said Fahima Nasrin.
If all children could be given a healthy environment to grow up in, juvenile crime would go down, she added.