Advocates and defenders of child rights are advocating for virtual courts to become a permanent fixture of the justice system. The say that virtual courts create a child-friendly justice system.
Mohammad Al-Amin was 14 years old when he was arrested. He had been accused of vandalism and was transferred to a child detention centre in the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. He was terrified. Al-Amin had no idea what the conditions would be in a place that was far from his home. He arrived at a noisy facility, that was crowded with other young boys and girls.
More than 150 kilometres away, in the village of Baniyachang, his mother, Jafura Begum, sat at home and wept. She was fearful of what might happen to her son.
Al-Amin would go on to spend nine months in detention. He got to know some of the other detained children, who like him, had waited months and sometimes even years to get their cases resolved in court.
He was eventually released through a virtual court system that had been established by Bangladesh’s Supreme Court. The virtual court system had been introduced in May 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic had ground regular court proceedings to a halt.
Over 5,000 children reunited with their families
The virtual children’s courts were developed to help expedite the backlog of cases involving children. Many had been detained after being accused of minor offences. The courts also helped to alleviate health concerns, with crowded conditions at the detention facilities putting young people at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.
“When I started seeing that other children were being released, I slowly began hoping that maybe I would be released too,” Al-Amin remembers. “The girls got released first, then we began to see some hope. Very soon, I got released and came home to my mother.”
Al-Amin recalls receiving the good news at the detention centre where a room had been converted into a makeshift courthouse. There was a video link to the judge and a probation officer in the facility presented the petition of bail.
Since Bangladesh’s first virtual children’s court was set up, more than 5,000 children have been granted bail and released from detention. The majority have been reunited with their families and so far, only two children have reoffended.
Call for virtual children’s courts to become permanent
The virtual courts were suspended in July 2021, after COVID-related restrictions were lifted in Bangladesh. International organisations like the UNICEF are advocating for these courts to become a permanent fixture of the justice system in the country.
These virtual courts would allow for children to remain in school pending their court hearings. It would also help to avoid the logistical and financial hardships that are often endured when traveling long distances to appear before court in person.
UNICEF supports detention centres in Bangladesh to manage the release process and is also working with the Department of Social Services in Bangladesh to reunite children with their families, and ensure they’re accompanied on their journeys home. The organisation also helps released children access health care and education services, in addition to legal and psychosocial support. Those are all pivotal in ensuring successful reintegration into society.
Return to normality and school
On his release from detention, Al-Amin was assigned a probation officer to take care of the case proceedings, and two social workers to help with his return.
“Rana bhai and Redwan bhai [the social workers] look after me now and visit me every now and then to see what I am up to – whether I’m studying or not, whether I’m on the right path or not,” he says.
Al-Amin’s mother, Jafura, received a financial grant to ease her son’s transition home. She invested the money in a tea stall which he helps to run with his uncle.
As Jafura thinks about her son’s second chance, she reflects: “I pray all the other children stuck in detention centres also get the chance to go back to their parents and loved ones.”
Image: UNICEF Bangladesh