Young people have been at the forefront of recent protests in Indian-administered Kashmir
Hundreds of youths detained in state prisons during protests in Indian-administered Kashmir last year say they have been abused and mistreated by the authorities, reports the BBC’s Riyaz Masroor in Srinagar.
“”I need to remember the date of the next trial. If I miss it, the policemen will knock on the door. I am scared.” ”
Umar, 16, responds with a blank look when asked to recall his 35-day stay in prison last year.
Jailed at 15 for throwing stones at policemen near his hometown of Pattan, 35km (22 miles) north of Srinagar city, Umar now fears any man in uniform.
Umar and dozens of his fellow protesters say they were first detained in an abandoned matchstick factory.
The place, they allege, served as a forced interrogation chamber of the paramilitary Special Task Force (STF) which has consistently denied all allegations that it has mistreated detainees.
Those who were held say that they were later shifted by the authorities to a district jail in Baramulla, 30km (19 miles) from their homes.
Umar is now out on bail, but he still faces several charges, including arson and attempt to murder, which he and his family deny.
He is among hundreds of boys who were detained during the 2010 protests.
Local rights groups have long criticised the state government’s policy of lodging boys in adult jails.
In the rest of India, offenders under 18 years are treated as juveniles and sent to separate detention facilities.
But in Kashmir, boys above 16 are treated as adults.
Rights groups have been demanding that the state government amend the detention law to make it similar to the rest of India.
Kashmir-based child rights lawyer Abdul Rashid Hanjura says that the current system of dealing with juvenile offenders is “little short of a joke”.
“They jail boys aged between 16 and 18 and then claim they have no juveniles [underage boys] in detention,” he said.
“We want the state law to be on a par with the Indian law.”
Rights activists say holding an underage person in an adult prison amounts to a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to which India is a signatory.
Umar and hundreds like him say that they were detained in adult prisons even when they were under 16.
Umar says that while he was not tortured, he was initially beaten with a bamboo stick at the local police station.
But he shivers when recalling his five-week ordeal in prison alongside convicted thieves and hardened criminals.
Umar’s parents and siblings say that they have noticed a change in his behaviour which sometimes is marked by violent outbursts.
Mr Hanjura says detaining teenagers in the absence of a juvenile justice system is only going to create more trouble in future.
“When the boys spend time with convicts and adult criminals, they undergo psychological trauma which creates a sense of revenge,” he says.
Umar aspired to become a doctor before he was arrested, but now he has lost interest in studies.
He is required to appear before a trial court every month.
“Every time, the judge asks me my name and marks the date for the next hearing. I wish he would listen to me.”
He says life has changed for him after his jail term.
“Earlier I used to play unmindfully. Now I need to remember the date of the next trial. If I miss it, the policemen will knock on the door. I am scared.”
Leading psychiatrist Dr Arshad Hussain says young detainees tend to pick up adult behaviour faster when in jail.
“When they are out, parents complain of rebellion but they don’t realise the scale of the psychological impact,” he said.
The state’s Internal Security Minister Nasir Aslam refused to comment on the allegations.
But officials say the government has tried to remedy the problem, recently setting up a “juvenile home” on the outskirts of Srinagar.
This secluded and quiet three-storey building is situated in the scenic surroundings of the famed Harvan Mughal garden.
But its picturesque qualities are lost on the teenagers who are lodged here. They argue that they would be better off in mainstream prisons because they feel so lonely.
“No sports, no education. We only sleep,” says a boy facing murder charges.
The home now houses fewer than 10 juveniles – most of them booked for throwing stones at the security forces or for shouting anti-India slogans.
“We’ll soon offer sports and other fun activities besides moral education,” says its administrator Bashir Ahmad.
Campaigners say that besides setting up the home, the authorities have done little to rehabilitate juvenile offenders rounded up during last year’s anti-India street protests.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently announced an amnesty for those not facing serious accusations, but many of the boys charged with stone-throwing or attending a procession either remain in jail or are on bail facing trial.
Offenders are generally charged under the draconian Public Safety Act which allows police to detain a person for longer periods without trial and recommend a minimum two-year prison term.
The government says it wants to soften the law to reduce this punishment to six months.
But that has not impressed separatist groups who blame the government for inflicting “mass punishment” on the people of Indian-administered Kashmir for “rising against injustice and repression”.