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Human Rights Watch Raises Alarms About How ISIS Children Suspects Are Being Treated


As the bombs fall in Syria and governments stand poised to announce the end of ISIS, there remains the incredible challenge of what to do with the tens of thousands of people involved with ISIS. A recent report from Human Rights Watch raises alarms about how children suspected of involvement are being treated, describes torture, forced confessions and quick trials without lawyers. Jo Becker is advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. She joins us now via Skype. Welcome to the program.

JO BECKER: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Let's begin by talking about who you interviewed for this report. How old are these children, and how did they get to ISIS?

BECKER: We interviewed nearly 30 children in northern Iraq who had been arrested and were being prosecuted for suspected association with ISIS. So for example, I met Salam (ph), who was just 14 years old and attending school when ISIS took over Mosul, where he was living with his family. His school soon shut down. And with little to do, he said he joined ISIS to earn a salary. He got 20 days of training and then worked as a cook making $50 a month.

He told us, I never wanted to fight; that's why I stayed a cook. And yet, he was captured in a military offensive and detained, interrogated and convicted of terrorism. When we met him, he had been in prison already for more than two years. We estimate that there are approximately 1,500 children - these are Iraqi children, largely between 13 and 17 - who are being detained for alleged association with ISIS.

CORNISH: And when we say detained, what is the process? How are the forced confessions coming in?

BECKER: So what happens is oftentimes, if these children are passing through a government checkpoint, authorities will check their wanted lists of ISIS suspects. And if they see the child's name on the list, the child will be arrested and detained and often interrogated and even tortured. These lists are compiled of tens of thousands of names.

And a child could be arrested simply because someone from their village reported them, whether rightly or wrongly, as connected to ISIS. Just being seen in the company of ISIS fighters or being suspected of having a father or an uncle who is part of ISIS is enough to get a child on one of these lists.

CORNISH: When it comes to teens who did commit horrible crimes, what should happen to them? I mean, what would would make sense in terms of the process?

BECKER: So international law says that children should never be recruited by armed groups in the first place. And by children we're talking about anyone under the age of 18. The real perpetrators here are the adults who recruit the children. Children should be perceived primarily as victims. And in fact, in most armed conflicts around the world, that's the norm.

If the children that I met in Iraq had been fighting in South Sudan or the Central African Republic, chances are they'd already be back in school or getting vocational training so that they could, you know, resume their lives.

CORNISH: If that's the case, why is this different?

BECKER: Well, what we're increasingly seeing is that in conflicts where a so-called terrorist group or armed extremist group is involved, governments often take a very punitive approach.

CORNISH: We should say that the KRG, the Kurdish Regional Government, said in a statement that it disagrees with your report. And Human Rights Watch notes that it couldn't independently verify the ISIS affiliation of these children. What else have you heard from the Kurdish Regional Government or the Iraqi government?

BECKER: While we were preparing our report, we - we wrote twice to both the Iraqi government and the KRG government. The KRG responded to both of our letters, but the Iraqi government never responded at all.

CORNISH: Does the U.S. have a responsibility here to be involved in this process as it was trying to fight and defeat ISIS?

BECKER: We would like to see the United States and other governments encourage Iraq to take a different approach towards these children and, instead of using prison and torture, to work with qualified agencies like UNICEF to set up credible rehabilitation and reintegration programs for these children. Throwing them in prison and charging them with terrorism is only going to foster future grievances. It's not going to help Iraq achieve justice or rebuild its society.

CORNISH: That's Jo Becker. She's the advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. Thank you for speaking with us.

BECKER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.