by Mansour Alnogaidan
August 11, 2015 – Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with officials from the prisons system of the General Investigations Directorate in the Saudi province of Qaseem. An appalling number of children, between the ages of 15 and 19, are now behind bars there. Many have recently returned from Syria and Iraq, where they had joined armed groups.
After many years, the Saudi interior ministry has finally reached the view that the Ministry of Social Affairs should become its partner in developing programs aiming to help these youth overcome their ordeals and facilitate their rehabilitation. Until recently, the interior ministry’s approach to Saudis under the age of 18 who were in their custody had been a source of many problems: They were referred to the “Social Observation House,” an incarcerations facility designated for minors convicted of a range of capital crimes. In these large facilities, it was difficult to monitor the intermingling between young jihadists and people their age whose violent crimes were not ideologically driven. “We can assert that radical ideology spreads like wildfire amongst these youngsters whenever they step away from security authorities’ watchful eye,” the official told me. “These authorities had born the burden almost alone. So we are collaborating with other partners in social services to take on their share of the responsibility — especially in liaising with the families of those detained.”
The official informed me that a “special wing for children” at Al-Tarfiya prison in Qaseem has been a more practical choice than to mix the 15- to 19-year-olds with others with no regard to age difference. “After separating the older inmates from the younger ones we can then sort them,” he explained. “This is why we created the special wing, where we can reward those who show signs of improvement over time. … We are committed to catalyzing their capabilities, sharpen their skills in art, carpentry, and whatever will eventually benefit them.” But monitoring the group and identifying “bullies” within it, he added, is not an easy task: “We required some time before we were finally able to obtain definitive evidence that one of the inmates had a destructive effect on the others. He possessed a strong personality, he was clever, charismatic, and very well-versed and polite, but his devastating impact on his inmates and cruel ways of bullying, threatening, and physical abuse that went undetected by cameras were all definite challenges for us. He pressured us, through his own family, by having them report to higher officials several times on his behalf — but we managed to get him.”
Noting the misjudgment of some “light” judicial verdicts, another official added, “Those detained would come to us guilty of charges like helping to conceal terrorists, or being influenced by ISIS or other organizations that practice “takfir” (declaring others infidels) towards state and society alike. They would receive light sentences ,following recommendations from committees, and later released, only to come back again with more severe crimes, such as blood on their hands.” The prison warded added: “They were returning as criminals! And this is what the leadership of this country will never allow. … We will give them the opportunity to be more moderate. They have ever means at their disposal to be entertained, and they certainly do not need an extra dose of religion. They need to learn how to love and appreciate life; how to hold on to it dearly. … If one chooses to follow his (earthly) desires and loosens himself from religious commitments, it will not be a loss for us, because that is a personal matter. Our highest concern is for him to become a good citizen, nothing more.”