UNITED NATIONS – Children caught in six conflict-affected areas are often held for months or even years as national security threats, and untold numbers have been tortured or died in custody, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The 36-page report released Thursday documents the arrest and detention of children for alleged association with opposition and rebel groups or for alleged involvement in conflict-related offenses in Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Nigeria and Syria.
Human Rights Watch said governments, often empowered by new counter-terrorism legislation, apprehend children under the age of 18 who allegedly pose security threats, frequently in violation of international legal standards.
"Many children are detained on the basis of groundless suspicion, flimsy evidence, or broad security sweeps," the rights group said. "Some are detained because of alleged terrorist activities by family members. ... Many have been subjected to coercive interrogations and torture, and in places like Syria, an unknown number have died in custody."
In 2014, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported that detentions took place in 17 of 23 conflict situations covered by his annual report on children and armed conflict, it said.
"Governments are trampling on children's rights in a misguided and counterproductive response to conflict-related violence," said Jo Becker, the group's advocate for children's rights. "The indefinite detention and torture of children needs to stop."
Since January 2015, Human Rights Watch said Afghan security forces have detained hundreds of children on suspicion of being Taliban fighters, attempting suicide attacks, manufacturing or placing improvised explosive devices, or otherwise assisting opposition armed groups.
It noted that Afghanistan maintains moe than 200 detention facilities and the number of youngsters being held "may be significantly higher."
The group quoted a U.N. report saying Congolese armed forces arrested and detained at least 257 children during 2013 and 2014. It said 29 children interviewed last December by Human Rights Watch reported being detained in appalling conditions in a military prison. All were accused of fighting for a rebel group, but only two said they were "active fighters," it said.
The report said Iraqi security forces have detained children on suspicion of armed activity, including association with the Islamic State extremist group. It cited U.N. figures saying 314 children, including 58 girls, had been charged or convicted of terrorrism-related charges and were being held in detention facilities as of December 2015.
Human Rights Watch said Israel prosecutes between 500 and 700 Palestinian children in military courts every year, charging the vast majority with throwing stones at soldiers or troops in the West Bank. In several cases it investigated, the rights group said children reported being hit and kicked in custody by police and being forced to spend hours in the cold, handcuffed to chairs in police compounds.
In Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said that since Boko Haram began its attacks in 2009 it has recruited hundred, and possibly thousands, of youngsters and used dozens, mostly girls, as suicide bombers.