Children "languishing in Ituri prisons"

Dozens of children are languishing in adult prisons in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeastern Ituri district, despite a legal prohibition, according to a UN official.

"In Ituri, there are over 70 children in conflict with the law - 57 are in prison in Bunia, alongside three babies who are accompanying their mothers," Nandy Estelle Ouattara, the officer in charge of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) child protection section in Bunia, said. "There are 11 children in Mahagi - with their own compound in the prison - and there are three in Aru, who are held alongside the adults - no separation.”

In the central prison in Bunia, the men stay separately while the women and children stay together, a children’s advocate, who asked not to be identified said.

The advocate said it was discovered that some women had slept with children when one of the female inmates was found to be pregnant.

“The problem is more administrative than judicial,” Jean Marie Mulumba, a children’s judge, said, “We apply the law. For example, such and such a child is considered dangerous and should be held by the state until the age of 21. But in the absence of appropriate facilities, the secure place for this child is a prison.”

Mulumba says cases involving children are often postponed when they are due in court and no one turns up during the hearing.

Dieudonne Rwabona, the district commissioner in charge of finance, said Ituri does not have the funds to build a correctional facility just for children.

''Some parents hide in fear of extortion of even fear of arrest should they step forward, so, as the children are abandoned, there is no one to lodge an appeal on their behalf after the sentence has been passed''

According to one UN official, there are no NGOs in Ituri working with detained minors. “This had led to abuses of such children. We have had instances of rape of minors in prison.”

"As it is, the main problem for the children in prison is lack of food,” the official said. “In Mahagi, for example, Caritas [a Catholic aid agency] used to feed the child prisoners twice a week - on Tuesday and Friday. However, Caritas stopped this feeding programme in November [2007] and since then the children in detention have had to rely on their families to bring them food. However, this is not easy as some of the children have been abandoned by the families.”

The official said: "A few weeks ago, I was in Mahagi at the prison and I heard a child crying loudly and incessantly, when I inquired why the child was crying, I learnt that it was a 10-year-old boy who last ate on Friday, yet our visit was on a Monday. I immediately went to the Nepalese UN soldiers and got some food for the whole group of children in the prison.

“This is an example of a short-term measure; there are no long term measures to address the plight of children in conflict with the law.”

The UN official said the problems are exacerbated by the failure of parents to appear in court when their children are arraigned.

"Some parents hide in fear of extortion of even fear of arrest should they step forward, so, as the children are abandoned, there is no one to lodge an appeal on their behalf after the sentence has been passed," the official said.

Js-rp/bn/am/sr