Most Palestinian children arrested by the Israel Defense Forces and police are intimidated, abused and maltreated in custody, according to the sworn testimonies of minors who were arrested last year. This happens both before and during interrogation, and several minors have been sexually assaulted.
The Palestinian branch of the non-governmental organization Defense for Children International has asked the United Nations to probe complaints of sexual assaults.
The organization has collected 100 detailed depositions from minors aged 12 to 17 who were arrested last year, immediately after their release. Most of the findings were not a surprise to DCI activists, apart from verbal or physical attacks of a sexual nature committed by soldiers.
Sixty-nine minors complained of being beaten by soldiers (slaps, kicks, sometimes blows with a rifle stock or club ). Nearly all - 97 percent, including children aged 12 to 15 - were held for hours with their hands cuffed, and 92 percent were blindfolded for long periods of time. Twenty-six percent said they were forced to remain in painful positions.
For example, one child said he was bound, blindfolded and placed on the floor of a jeep or vehicle on its way to the prison facility. About half the children said the soldiers who arrested them cursed and threatened them before the interrogation, to make them confess the charges. Or the children were urged to confess with false promises of immediate release.
The children were frequently told that the soldier who beat them was also the interrogator to whom they must confess. Most of them said they were held for many hours before receiving anything to drink or eat.
The DCI says the numerous sworn testimonies attest to a fixed, repeated pattern. It says these practices violate international law and the children's rights.
In addition, causing pain and intimidation to extract a confession from a minor or make him incriminate others is defined as torture.
The relatively surprising findings in the depositions were the complaints of sexual abuse - verbal or physical. Minors usually have difficulty talking about this aspect of their arrest, and the issue came up only during the longer conversations DCI lawyers had with the children.
Four minors reported being sexually assaulted, and 12 said they were threatened with sexual assault. The threat was accompanied by physical violence. Last week, the DCI's Palestinian branch sent the UN official who monitors torture 14 complaints by Palestinian prisoners aged 13 to 16 of sexual assault during detentions from January 2009 to April 2010.
The depositions sent to the UN report direct attacks, including squeezing boys' testicles, pushing a blunt object (a club or rifle stock ) between the chair and a child's buttocks, and repeated threats of "I'll screw you if you don't confess you threw stones."
A 15-year-old arrested in September told the DCI that a soldier slapped him twice, squeezed his testicles and asked if he had thrown stones or a Molotov cocktail. The boy said he hadn't thrown either, and the soldier shouted at him that he was a liar, beat him all over his body, grabbed his testicles again and squeezed. "I won't let your balls go until you confess," he said.
The boy felt such pain that he confessed to throwing stones, he reported.
The DCI recommends that the IDF and police interrogate minors only in the presence of a lawyer of their choice and a relative, and record the interrogation on video. These accepted procedures for interrogating children would reduce the risk of extorted confessions.
Palestinian prisoners, including minors, are allowed to see their lawyers only shortly before trial, sometimes only in the courtroom itself. This prevents them from talking in detail about their treatment in custody. Minors, 60 percent of whom are charged with stone-throwing, may expect a much shorter prison sentence than their detention time until the end of the trial.
Consequently, many minors confess, even when they deny the charges, and their lawyers sign plea deals with the prosecution to shorten their incarceration.
Asked about a failure to complain to the authorities about the sexual assault of minors, DCI legal adviser Khaled Kuzmar said many parents are not prepared to do so. "Very few people have confidence in the system that abuses them," he said.
Some fear that the system or certain individuals would take revenge on them if they complain, he said.
However, the DCI is considering filing complaints along with Israeli human rights groups, if the parents agree.
The Israeli authorities arrest around 700 Palestinian minors aged 12 to 18 annually. Some 300 Palestinian minors are held in various Israeli prison facilities every month - either before or after they have been tried. Last month, 335 Palestinian minors, 32 of them aged 12 to 15, were imprisoned, mostly on suspicion of throwing stones.
The IDF Spokesman's Office dismissed "claims of deliberate deviation from procedures for arresting and interrogating minors. Minors' arrests are carried out in keeping with international law; the arrest of suspects under 16 years old in the West Bank requires a military lawyer's approval .... Minors are brought before a judge within a relatively short period."
The spokesman said complaints about violence should be raised during the trial, or in an orderly complaint to the Justice Ministry's police investigation department or the Military Police.
Military sources told Haaretz that minors' interrogation sessions are recorded, except for interrogations by the Shin Bet security service, which are exempt by law. As for a lawyer's presence during a minor's interrogation, the law does not require that even in Israel proper.