CAIRO, Egypt — With narrow shoulders and a shy smile, 14-year-old Akram looks younger than other boys his age. He wears a gray headband with dark brown messy curls coming out of the top, and his voice has not yet broken.
One night in July, dozens of armed security officers came to his family home in Cairo and took him away. For more than three months he was held in a paramilitary Central Security Forces camp in Banha, which lies within Egypt’s Delta region.
Akram is one of at least 160 children who have been held at the camp, some of them for over 11 months, according to the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
But the group says the true number may be higher, and that it’s impossible to know how many children are in being held in adult detention facilities across Egypt.
“No one in Egypt has the power to check prisons other than the Ministry of the Interior or the prosecutor,” says Halim Heneish, a lawyer with the Nadeem Center.
When it comes to imprisoning children, Egypt has a pretty terrible track record.
In December, however, in response to a report by Nadeem in which they interviewed families of the detained boys, Interior Ministry Director of Special Operations General Medhat Menshawy denied that there were children detained in the camp.
But the families gathered outside every week would suggest otherwise. And they’re not the only ones.
Hundreds of cases
“Since July 2013, UNICEF has recorded over 700 cases of children who have been detained in multiple locations in Egypt in connection with political events,” says a representative for UNICEF in Egypt — the UN agency responsible for child welfare.
Of those, 156 remain in detention and many have been held in places not suitable for child detainees, such as police stations or in cells with adults. Their numbers do not include the reported 160 children detained in Banha.
Under Egyptian law it is illegal to keep children under 15 in detention for more than two weeks.
Officially, the prison in Banha does not exist. When parents would go to ask about their sons they were told they were not there. Only when some of the prisoners managed to smuggle in phones did parents learn their children’s whereabouts.
Akram’s ordeal began when police banged on his door in the middle of the night. The officer said he was being arrested for blocking the road and belonging to a banned group, among other charges.
A newspaper headline from the time reads, “Capture of Muslim Brotherhood middle and high school students’ cell for cutting off the road in Qalubiya.” One of the boys is pictured holding a drum, another a firecracker.
Akram says he was taken because a friend of his was also arrested and beaten and forced to give the names of his friends.
For several days Akram was held in a police station where he was slapped and kicked and saw other boys get shocked with electric cables. At a state security building a few days later they were told to say on video that they were picked up at a protest and were beaten when they said they’d been arrested from their beds. A couple of days later, he was taken to the Central Security camp.
“If we called out because someone was sick they wouldn’t come,” says Akram. In one instance, the boys said that when they called out for the guards to help a sick cellmate, the guards sprayed them with some kind of pepper spray and it hurt to put water on their skin for three days afterward.
When asked how he and his cellmates spent their days, Akram says: “We would play.”
In October, when many of the children had been detained for several months, their mothers began to protest outside the camp.
Each brought with them a poster of their son and asked the guards at the camp if they could deliver blankets and food to their children.
“They said, you can bang your heads against the wall,” says Um Akram, Akram’s mother.
The mothers moved their protests closer and closer to the gate of the camp until a Major emerged. Um Akram says he began to beat the mothers with his belt.
“We didn’t even have any political demands, we weren’t calling for the fall of the military government, we just wanted to visit our children,” says Um Akram.
A few days later, the officers began allowing in blankets and some food, though the boys said the soldiers would take half of the supplies for themselves.
In the camp
In the camp itself, conditions are bleak. The children are held with no access to sunlight, unclean water and no medical care.
When 16-year-old Mustafa was taken from his house in September, he says the officers who arrested him hit him in his eye and he sustained an injury, which, left untreated in the camp, has left him blind in that eye.
Mustafa was taken first to a state security detention center where he was held for five days. During that time he was beaten and given electric shocks all over his body. He says the only questions the officers asked were: “Did you demonstrate? Why did you demonstrate?” After that he was taken to the camp, where the beatings and electric shocks stopped.
Other children held in the camp reported similar treatment.
Islam, 17, was picked up on his way to school. He was kept in a police station for three days. About four times a day officers would come to his cell, cuff his hands behind his back and administer electric shocks all over his body, he told GlobalPost. Again, all they asked him was whether or not he attended demonstrations.
“I was so worried because of course I know what happens in those places,” says Islam’s mother.
One of the reasons children are being held in this unofficial camp is that other detention facilities are full to the brim, say rights groups.
“The law on children says you can’t detain a child anywhere but a place specifically for children,” says Heneish. “They’re there [in the Central Security camp] because there is no space.”
He added that even the police stations are full, and that before the trial of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, “they even moved people out of police stations in preparation for more arrests.”
Even in most adult prisons in Egypt, families are allowed visits. For these boys no one from their families was ever admitted into the camp to see them because they were held in a paramilitary facility. Every 15 days at first, and then every 45, they would glimpse family members from afar in the courtroom.
Tried in adult courts
Akram, for the moment, has been released on bail after more than three months in detention.
“I felt such a great happiness, I couldn’t believe it, I was so happy he was out of their clutches,” says his mother.
But he is still facing trial, along with 5 other minors, in an adult court. He could well be taken from his family again.
“By law there have to be trials specially for juveniles in a juvenile court,” says Heneish.
But rights groups and families agree that juvenile detention centers in Egypt are even worse than the camp.
“The camp is safer than a juvenile detention center. In the camp at least they’re all political prisoners,” says the mother of one of the boys. She adds that she had heard reports of rape and harassment in the juvenile detention system.
But even if the students are found to be innocent, their lives have already suffered severe disruption. Students who are arrested are often automatically expelled from school.
“Islam got out at dawn, he said the dawn prayers, said hello to the family and went straight to his exam,” says his mother. But while he can take his exams, Islam is not allowed to attend classes.
Akram's teachers are more understanding, according his mother, and he has been allowed to stay in school.