Al-Shabaab’s child soldiers are being abused while in the custody of Somali government forces, facing military court sentences which lack due process, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) warned.
The group detailed interviews with 80 children formerly associated with the Al-Shabaab armed group in an 85-page report. The majority of them were captured through “security operations”, held by the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Mogadishu or Puntland’s Intelligence Agency (PIA) based in Bosasso.
‘Beaten’ for confessions
Intelligence officials and guards used “coercive treatment and interrogations” against the children, including “cutting them off from their relatives and legal counsel, threatening them, and on occasion beating and torturing them” to obtain confessions.
The children told HRW that they are being imprisoned with adult detainees in “dire conditions”.
A 15-year-old detained in 2017 told HRW: “I couldn’t sleep at night as there was no space and I suffered from excruciating headaches, but received no medication.”
In another case, a 16y-ar old boy told HRW that he was beaten by NISA in 2016:
They would take me out of my cell at night and pressure me to confess. One night, they beat me hard with something that felt like a metal stick. I was bleeding for two weeks, but no one treated me.
‘Doubly trapped and victimised’
The report goes on to document children claiming to feel “doubly trapped and victimised”. “I feel afraid and let down,” a 15-year-old boy who was captured and sentenced in a military court after he was sent to fight in Puntland by Al-Shabaab, said. “Al-Shabab forced me into this,” the boy said, “and then the government gives me this long sentence.” He now faces ten years in prison.
“Children who suffered under Al-Shabab find themselves at risk of mistreatment and hardship in government custody,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The government’s haphazard and at times outright abusive approach harms children and compounds fear and mistrust of security forces.”
The Somali government should treat children as victims of the conflict, and ensure that children, regardless of the crimes they may have committed, are accorded the basic protection due to all children
Bader said. “Authorities across the country should improve supervision of children in detention and prioritise rehabilitation in addressing their cases. International partners should help bolster child-specific judicial and other procedures.”
Somali’s federal government has “promised” to hand over the children captured to the United Nations child protection agency (UNICEF) for rehabilitation, the report said. But the response from Somalia’s government authorities has been “inconsistent” and has violated international human rights law, the report said. As a result of sustained advocacy and campaigning, the Somali government has only released 250 children to UNICEF since 2015.
Al-Shabaab seeks to dislodge the Somali government and implement a strict version of Islamic law across Somalia. In 2012 the group pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda inviting counter-terrorism air strikes and raids by the United States.
The African Union Mission (AMISOM) to Somalia is gradually rescinding its footprint, forcing the Somali government to find ways to ensure it is equipped militarily to counter domestic terrorism threats.