Afghanistan's overburdened juvenile justice system needs reform

Confinement and lack of rehabilitation can cause many long-term problems for children

The Kabul Juvenile Detention Centre. Maria de la Guardia / Children in Crisis
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Last month, the Canadian government made an US$8.1 million payment to Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen from Afghanistan, as compensation for the treatment he had suffered as a child in the US military prisons in Bagram and Guantanamo. Fifteen years old at the time of his incarceration, he became the youngest child to be convicted of war crimes since the Second World War. The Canadian courts found that his fundamental rights as a minor had been violated.

While Khadr's case made international headlines, children in Afghanistan continue to bear the repercussions of an overburdened justice system. Over the next few months, up to 200 children convicted of "crimes against Afghan national security" will be moved from Bagram air base to the only juvenile rehabilitation centre in Kabul. They will join 140 other children between the ages of 12 and 18, with whom Kabul-based think tank Samuel Hall met earlier this year for a report commissioned by Children in Crisis. The report, released earlier this month, found that many of the children at the centre, who have been charged with crimes ranging from petty theft to murder, had experienced detrimental impacts from the period of confinement.

Mahdi, 15, is a case in point. The teenager who was apprehended during a robbery, arrived at the centre in April, still in shock. He knew that he would have to remain in detention while awaiting the court hearing. But what he could not have guessed was the impact of this period of time: “If I have problems here, I don’t talk to anyone … I am in pain … I miss time with my family the most,” the teenager lamented.

Stories like Mahdi’s offer compelling glimpses into the ordeals faced by children in conflict with the law in the Afghan juvenile justice system. They also highlight their desire to secure their future. At least 80 per cent of the children want to continue their education, while nearly 70 per cent want to acquire new skills to open up employment opportunities.

In theory, the juvenile code calls for state-supported education, vocational training and psycho-social services. But in practice, we found that detained children lack sufficient support and there is little distinction between the services offered to those who have committed petty crimes and those guilty of serious offences. A combination of psycho-social support, education and vocational training could ensure that the long-term trajectories of these children are not restricted by idle years in detention.

At least some of the resources to support both the rehabilitation and reintegration of these children do exist.

There are vacant classrooms and educational material that can be used more effectively. Many of the boys, for example, do bead work to create rings, bracelets and prayer beads. Children in Crisis provides social workers, teachers and support staff, but this can only be a temporary solution to a sector in need of reform.

Afghanistan's juvenile code recommends alternatives to detention for less serious offences, including house arrest and mandatory social service. It is important to remember that detention is only one of a number of options. It is meant to be the last resort. Some of these alternatives, coupled with increased use of open detention, might bring greater meaning to rehabilitation in a resource-stripped context.

Children like those transferred from Bagram, however, accused of charges such as terrorism, stand little chance of restarting their lives after detention with dignity or optimism unless they are afforded a combination of services.

Rehabilitation of such children must take place from the very start of their detention in order to pave the way for their eventual reintegration. Alongside providing services to the children, parents and guardians should be counselled about providing support, and social workers should reach out to their communities to reduce potential ostracism.

Building the capacity of public institutions and their staff to bridge the gap between the “theory” and “practice” of Afghanistan’s juvenile justice system would kindle the overall process. Increasing budgets for local authorities, supervising the allocated funds, empowering social workers as interlocutors between the children and their communities, and providing individual vocational and educational services, would all deliver positive, high-impact results at a low-cost.

Samuel Hall is an independent think tank. The report mentioned above, Hope Behind Bars, can be read here