Since 2015, authorities across Somalia have detained hundreds of boys suspected of joining or supporting Al-Shabab. In some instances, government security forces have captured boys like Hamza on the battlefield, but most boys are arrested during security operations, particularly in mass sweeps in the capital, Mogadishu.
After arrest, whether by the military, police or intelligence, children are usually transferred into the custody of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) in Mogadishu or on occasion Puntland’s Intelligence Agency (PIA) in Bosasso. There they are detained and sometimes interrogated while cut off from communicating with their relatives and denied legal counsel. They are held with adult detainees and sometimes held incommunicado. These due process violations are all detrimental to their safety and well-being and in violation of Somalia’s international human rights obligations for the protection of children.
In a justice system that remains heavily reliant on forced confessions, children are not spared. Children in intelligence detention in Mogadishu and Bosasso have been coerced into signing or recording confessions and threatened and on occasion beaten, at times in ways that amount to torture.
There is no consistent government treatment of children it suspects are connected to Al-Shabab. While government officials have previously admitted to detaining boys deemed high risk, other factors, including a boy’s economic status, clan affiliation and external attention to the case, also determine their fate. Many boys are eventually released without charge, often after relatives intervene and bribe officials to ensure their release. Some children are handed over to child rehabilitation and reintegration centers run by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), while others face trial before military courts for criminal charges of Al-Shabab membership, murder or conflict-related offenses.
Under international human rights law, governments are obligated to recognize the special situation of children who have been recruited or used in armed conflict, including children involved in terrorism-related activities, and provide assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. While children who were members of armed groups can be tried for serious crimes, non-judicial measures should be considered, and legal proceedings should be in accordance with international juvenile justice standards, taking into consideration the best interests of the child. Sentencing should prioritize rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which interprets the Convention on the Rights of the Child that Somalia ratified in 2015, discourages countries from bringing criminal proceedings against children within the military justice system.
While prosecutions and imprisonment of children on security charges in Somalia is not widespread, children are being tried for Al-Shabab-related crimes in military courts, largely as adults. The courts have shown no consistency on dealing with these cases, yet basic due process, including the right to present a defense and the prohibition on the use of coerced evidence, is regularly flouted.
Human Rights Watch conducted research into nine cases in which children have been sentenced by the military court in Mogadishu since 2015, primarily where children have been charged with membership in Al-Shabab or allegations of providing logistical assistance to the armed group. In Puntland dozens of children including Hamza and children as young as 12 spent months in Garowe and Bosasso prisons and appeared before military courts since 2016. The bulk of the cases were linked to Al-Shabab’s March 2016 attack.