The US military has detained more than 200 Afghan teenagers captured during the war for about a year at a time at a military prison next to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the US has told the UN.
The US State Department characterized the detainees held since 2008 as “enemy combatants” in a report sent every four years to the UN in Geneva updating US compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The US military had held them “to prevent a combatant from returning to the battlefield,” the report said.
A few are still confined at the detention facility in Parwan, which will be turned over to the Afghan government, it said. “Many of them have been released or transferred to the Afghan government,” said the report distributed this week.
Most of the juvenile Afghan detainees were about 16 years old, but their age was not usually determined until after capture, the US report said.
If their average age is 16 it means, “it is highly likely that some children were as young as 14 or 13 years old when they were detained by US forces,” Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program, said on Friday.
“I’ve represented children as young as 11 or 12 who have been at Bagram,” said Tina M. Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, which represents adult and juvenile Bagram detainees.
“I question the number of 200, because there are thousands of detainees at Parwan,” Foster said.
“There are other children whose parents have said these children are under 18 at the time of their capture, and the US doesn’t allow the detainees or their families to contest their age,” she said.
Dakwar also criticized the length of detention, a year on average, according to the US report.
“This is an extraordinarily unacceptably long period of time that exposes children in detention to greater risk of physical and mental abuse, especially if they are denied access to the protections guaranteed to them under international law,” Dakwar said.
The US State Department was called for comment on the criticism, and a representative said they were seeking an officer to reply.
The previous US report four years ago, provided a snapshot of the focus of the US military’s efforts in the closing stages of the Bush administration after years of warfare and anti-terrorism campaigns.
In 2008, the US said it held about 500 juveniles in Iraqi detention centers and had only about 10 at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A total of 2,500 youths had been detained, almost all in Iraq, from 2002 through 2008 under the Bush administration.
US President Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 in part on winding down active US involvement in Iraq, and shifting US military focus to Afghanistan. The latest figures on detainees reflect the redeployment of US efforts to Afghanistan.
Because the teen detainees were not charged with any crime, “a detainee would generally not be provided legal assistance,” the report said, adding that they were allowed to attend open hearings and defend themselves, and that a personal advocate was assigned to each detainee.
“These are basically sham proceedings,” Foster said. “The personal representatives don’t do anything different for the child detainees than they do for the adults, which is nothing.”
The report added: “The purpose of detention is not punitive but preventative: to prevent a combatant from returning to the battlefield.”