In a police station at Port de Boulbinet, in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, a teenager brushes his hand across the foot of a friend - a sign of asking forgiveness.
As part of mediation by police officers and an aid worker from the local NGO Sabou-Guinée, the youth is begging pardon from his companion for having attacked him. Officers had detained the two the previous day for brawling in public. Thanks to the intervention, led by Sabou-Guinée, a police commander agrees to let them go instead of sending them to the central prison - a common route for minors and older offenders alike, even in cases of petty crime.
The mediation approach is supposed to be the rule, but it's the exception in Guinea, child rights experts say.
Guinean law says that when a minor is apprehended for a crime, authorities should make detention a last resort, giving precedence to mediation and family involvement, awareness raising, and other preventive measures. In initial questioning, children are to be accompanied by a parent or guardian and a lawyer. But in this, and in many other procedures, the system falls short.
Children are routinely deprived of legal representation because of a severe shortage of state lawyers handling minors’ cases; there are just 10 for the whole country, according to the International Bureau for Children's Rights (IBCR).
As of 2009, the latest year for which data are available, 611 children were detained in Guinea, among them 86 girls, according to a 2012 study by IBCR, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Save the Children and Sabou-Guinée. UNICEF says the number probably still hovers around 600.
“You can find minors who did nothing worse than steal some food or a small amount of money spending six months, a year or more in the central prison, having never seen a single judge,” said a gendarme in Conakry’s Matam neighbourhood who requested anonymity. “Rather than contributing to their reintegration into society, we are hardening their hearts.”
Olivier Feneyrol, head of the international NGO Terre des Hommes (TdH) in Guinea, puts it this way: “Every time we put a child in prison, we produce a delinquent.”
This is one of the things Sabou-Guinée looks to prevent, as its workers regularly make the rounds at police and gendarme posts in Conakry and other parts of Guinea, intervening on behalf of minors in trouble with the law.
Guinea passed a children’s rights law in 2008, based on international conventions the country has ratified; it sets out rules for handling minors suspected of crimes.
“Guinea has a very good law. The problem is in its application,” said Thierno Sadou Diallo, a Conakry-based legal scholar who worked on this issue for years with Sabou and TdH. “For example, outside of Conakry, we don’t have tribunals specializing in handling minors [as the law calls for]. This means in the rest of the country, the same personnel are treating both adults’ and minors’ cases, yet the latter require a specialist in children’s rights.”
International children's rights researchers have expressed concern that children in police custody and in detention are subjected to ill treatment and torture.
Justice Ministry spokesman Ibrahima Béavogui told IRIN: “Those charged with handling minors’ cases lack the resources to follow these cases closely and carry out their work properly… But it is not only a question of resources. It’s a question of specialized education and training for all judicial personnel.” He said proper handling of minors is part of ongoing reforms in Guinea’s justice system.
As part of its intervention TdH trains police, gendarmes and judges in Conakry.
“After one seminar, we went to the central prison,” said the Matam gendarme, who participated in a training about minors’ rights. “Seeing young people locked up there - that really hit me.”
He said one colleague wept when a youth at the prison recognized and greeted him, saying: “Do you remember me? You’re the one who ordered me sent here.” The youth had been in detention for a year.
Detention without trial is not just a problem for minors in Guinea, Béavogui said. “Even in temporary custody, you’ll see people spending a week or two without an initial questioning. All the way down the line, the system is dysfunctional.”
He said Guinea has a lot of work to do “to make the judiciary strong and independent”.
When they learn of minors who are remanded into custody, Sabou-Guinée workers follow up to see that the detainees do not spend longer awaiting trial than the law stipulates - four or six months, depending on the degree of the crime, renewable once - in quarters separate from older offenders.
In cases where the authorities opt for alternatives to detention, the aid workers visit minors’ homes, checking that stay out of trouble, and assisting them in getting training or work when possible.
“This is about protecting minors’ rights, but it’s also for the whole of society, in that it educates and monitors youths who might otherwise fall into a life of crime,” said Sabou-Guinée’s Maurice Kamano.
Rights and responsibilities
When Kamano visits various police stations throughout Conakry, he is greeted like family. Police officers and gendarmes ask him for updates on cases. Many of the officers joke with him. “Ah, the kids’ lawyer is here,” chimes one. “No special treatment for kids today - a crime is a crime,” quips a policeman.
Joking aside, those involved in the programmes do not say minors who have committed crimes should get away with them. “On the contrary,” said TdH’s Feneyrol. “The idea is to protect the child’s rights and find alternatives to putting minors in prison with hardened criminals.”
For lack of means, Guinea does not have detention facilities for minors, and organizations like Sabou and TdH encourage alternatives such as community service and education centres - approaches provided for in Guinean law.
“It would take significant resources to set up the infrastructure needed for minors in trouble with the law,” said Feneyrol. “It’s not just about creating a separate prison building for children. You’ve got to have staff specially trained in children’s rights and programmes adapted to minors.”
Legal scholar Diallo says: “The objective of justice when it comes to minors is to help these young people reintegrate into society. From questioning to detention to judgment, the idea should be to help them get back on the right track, come back to the family and community, and become upstanding adult members of society.”
The officers at the port police station said they face touchy decisions daily as they look to uphold these principles, protect minors’ rights, and at the same time keep order. Their hands are full with unoccupied, unruly youths, and they say drugs are a major problem. “There’s a pill the kids take today - renders them utterly irrational and defiant,” one policeman said.
Aid worker Kamano runs into some youths at the port who are trying to stay on the right track. As they approach, he marvels at how they have grown. Years ago, he helped them when they were children drifting through the streets and flirting with crime. Today, they make money cleaning fish, transporting goods in pushcarts and doing other odd jobs at the port.
Amadou Condé, 23, says Kamano helped him out years ago, when he was in the streets. Condé received training in carpentry, but later left that to clean fish, which promised quicker money. He makes just enough to get by, but wants a better life for his five-year-old son, so he now hopes to establish himself as a carpenter.
“I want to put my son in school,” Condé said. “He mustn’t live this unstable life I’ve lived. I want a better future for him.”