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RIGHTS-BAHRAIN: Law on Young Offenders Needs Fixing – Critics

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Aug 25 2010 (IPS) - It was his second time to be caught stealing a car, so Turki was meted a jail term of five years. But the young repeat offender was only 17 years old at the time of his arrest, and therefore was still considered a minor under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The problem was that while Bahrain is a signatory to the convention, its penal code and juvenile law consider only those below the age of 15 as children. Minors above this cut-off age and who get in trouble with the law may thus be sent to jail should the judge deem it fit for the offence committed.

The exact number of minors, serving or served time in Bahrain’s two jails, is not readily known. The situation has been a cause of concern for rights advocates who say jails are no place for youthful offenders, even if the state sees to it that they are in quarters separate from those of adults.

“Children couldn’t hold responsible of their crimes as they committed them under the influence of certain situations,” asserts Rana Al-Sairafi, a member of the children’s rights group Be-Free Centre. “(At) such young age they should be rehabilitated.”

Fakhriya Al-Dairi, a former legislator who is also a specialist in children’s affairs, tells IPS as well that jail terms are unlikely to help young offenders who are “disturbed” or were abused. She says that for the last eight years, some members of the Upper House have been fighting to raise the legal ‘end- of-childhood’ age to 18 – to no avail.

But Al-Dairi says that the legislature may be acting soon on the proposed amendments to the juvenile law.

“Although the Upper House is in recess and will resume activities in December after the state election that will take place in October…I know that revision of the bill is in progressive stage,” she says. “There is hope that it will be amended during the upcoming legislative term.”

Should the law be amended, children from 16 to 18 years of age would not be sent to adult prisons or meted severe punishments.

For sure, though, some Bahraini authorities do not see anything wrong with the current set-up. Brigadier Ibrahim Habib Al Ghaith, general inspector at the Ministry of Interior, for one, says, “We are law enforcers and our activities are controlled by legislation and court orders, as the judge decides where minors should go, either to jail or the Juvenile Protection Centre.”

He also notes, “After being sentenced, young inmates are kept in special places away from adult inmates and provided with rehabilitation to ensure that their wrongdoings are corrected.” Rights activists confirm that youthful offenders are kept separately from adults serving time in Bahraini prisons.

Lawyer Fawziya Janahi, for her part, says that those below 18 always get “half punishments” or half the sentence adults would get for the same crime. The punishment, though, is more severe for repeat offenders – whether adult or minor.

But she stresses that no child below 15 ever gets a jail term, although his or her stay at the juvenile centre could be extended. In many cases, children age 16 or below who get in trouble with the law are kept in detention precisely to avoid sending them to jail.

Police officer and Juvenile Protection Centre head Mariam Abdulraheem, says Bahrain’s non-jail, special correction programmes for young include regular vocational training. Those who go to school, writes Abdulraheem in a paper, continue to do so throughout their rehabilitation period.

Abdulraheem also says that based on their offence and “conditions”, the children at the Centre are permitted to spend weekends attending family gatherings or going to entertainment places.

Maysa Al-Na’ar, who did a study on Bahraini juveniles, meanwhile says that theft is usually why boys are sent to the Juvenile Centre while it is “wild behaviour that cannot be controlled by parents” for the girls.

“Unfortunately,” she says, “the study reveals that large segment of those children go back to crimes because of family conflicts and rejection of the community to accept them as law-abiding citizens.”

According to lawyer Janahi, the toughest punishment ever meted on a minor in Bahrain so far is a six-year jail term. The sentence was handed down last year to a 16-year-old boy found guilty of killing someone by running over the man several times.

Had he been an adult, Janahi says, the sentence could have been 15 years in jail to a life sentence.

Murder, of course, is far more serious than stealing a car, which was what got Turki a similar sentence. Comments his mother: “I know that the judge considered it as just penalty, because my son was involved in another robbery in 2006 and spent three months in detention and one week in the Juvenile Protection Centre back then and couldn’t repent.”

“But,” she says, “we shouldn’t give up on children and always give them a second chance.”

She is clinging to the hope that her son would be let off three years early – in 2010 — for good behaviour. Still, she says, the fact would remain that he had spent time in jail, which may ruin his chances for a decent job. “All vacancies,” she says, “require a certificate of good conduct that my son wouldn’t have after serving his sentence.”

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