French police draw fire for detaining children

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In the latest case, four 14-year-old school children were detained for questioning for as l ong as 25 hours after blows were exchanged near their school in northeastern Paris last week.

Paris – The French police's enthusiasm for locking up suspects without charge sparked calls for urgent reform on Wednesday, after four teenagers were detained for hours over a scuffle near their school.

The controversy centres on the police's power to hold suspects as young as 13 for questioning. Critics say police use the procedure abusively, locking up suspects who have committed no offence and sometimes mistreating them.

In the latest case to have caused a scandal, four 14-year-old school children were detained for questioning after blows were exchanged near their school in northeastern Paris last week.

The morning after the incident police descended on the house of one of the school children, identified only as Anne, and took her in for questioning still wearing the clothes she slept in, her family told AFP.

She was locked in a cell for 10 hours. Two others were released after 12 hours and a fourth child involved in the fight, a 14-year-old boy, was held for 25 hours. They have not been charged.

"I understand that questions are asked after a fight ... but I find the measure of taking her into custody from home totally disproportionate," Anne's mother Chantal, who asked for her full name to be withheld, told AFP.

The Green and Socialist parties tabled proposals to tighten up rules on police questioning, and the parliamentary leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, called for lawmakers to review it.

Lawmakers, newspapers and other officials weighed in to criticise the police action. Dominique Versini, head of the state child protection institution, warned against "systematic recourse" to the detention procedure.

Parliament will hold a major debate on the issue on 25 March.

According to government figures, the number of instances of people being held for police questioning reached 800,000 in 2010. Socialist deputy Christophe Caresche said this was two-thirds more than in 2002.

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie admitted that too many people are held for questioning and told parliament that she planned to make sure the procedure applies only to those suspected of serious crimes.

The national police officers' union SNOP said the police were victims of "a campaign of misinformation and slander" by lawyers and politicians.

Patrice Ribeiro, a leader of the second-biggest police union Synergie, suggested some police were under "pressure from certain bosses" to carry out detentions as they were used to gauge a force's performance.

Human rights campaigners complain that French police detention procedures break European human rights laws.

"We are the only European country where lawyers cannot assist people held in police custody," Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of the French Human Rights League, told radio station Europe 1 on Wednesday.

"People feel insecure because they are afraid," he said.

A report by international human rights group Amnesty International last year said French police were "above the law" and were getting away with killings, beatings and racist abuse.

It documented cases of people who had died or been hospitalised while being restrained or detained by police, including a pregnant woman who was tear gassed and beaten with a baton in 2006.

Patrick Delouvin, head of Amnesty's policy research on France, said suspects received inadequate legal assistance when being held and a "much more effective" system was needed to ensure abuses of the procedure were punished.

AFP / Expatica

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