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Juvenile terror suspects

Juvenile terror suspects

IF there is a red line in any criminal justice system, it should be this: children must never, ever face the possibility of execution and in all cases the emphasis should be on rehabilitation rather than punishment of those convicted by the system.

Following a Peshawar High Court order late last month to suspend the death sentence handed down by a military court to an individual, Haider Ali — whose parents claim he was a juvenile at the time of his detention by the military — the federal government has sought proof of the adulthood of at least 10 individuals that the security establishment wants to try under the 21st Amendment-sanctioned military courts.

The government has acted sensibly, humanely and in a timely manner — now it is up to the military to demonstrate that juveniles, ie individuals under the age of 18, are not being lined up for trial in opaque military courts, which have the power to hand down death sentences to defendants.

Worryingly, however, as reported in this newspaper yesterday, there are voices calling for the law to be amended to allow juveniles to be tried in military courts — the argument being that the militants have trained and attempted to use under-18 suicide bombers who risk being turned loose by civilian courts.

But that would be a clear expansion of the ambit of military courts, which the government had pledged would only apply to so-called jet-black terrorists.

A child suicide bomber is not and cannot be a militant mastermind. If anything, a child is a victim himself of a perverse ideology that specifically targets young, impressionable minds to act as foot soldiers in a war that they cannot possibly understand.

Of course, juveniles accused of terrorism should not be simply set free or handed down the lightest of sentences — the state must work with rehabilitation and child experts to find a way to gradually prepare them for an eventual reintroduction to mainstream society.

If there are hardened juvenile terrorists, they should be kept in a safe and humane environment until their full sentences are served out and then possibly monitored upon release.

It is simply wrong to suggest that the regular juvenile justice system is incapable of handling terrorism-related cases.

To be sure, reforms are needed — though perhaps the government in trying to replace the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, 2000 with the Juvenile Justice System Bill, 2015 is unnecessarily trying to re-invent the wheel.

The age of criminal responsibility is too low at the age of seven, allowing very young children to be hauled into the criminal justice system. Perhaps specific measures should be introduced for the detention and rehabilitation of juvenile militants that keeps them both separate from adult militants and regular juvenile offenders.

Surely, the country that has already failed these children in allowing them to become terror recruits should not fail them twice over.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2015

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