Refugee advocates accused the U.S. military Tuesday of abusing hundreds of Haitian children - breaking arms and bloodying noses - since their adult compatriots were sent home from camps at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
“The children were handcuffed just for normal children behavior. The U.S. government is guilty of child abuse,” said Merleine Bastien, president of Haitian Women of Miami.
The allegations are being investigated, Maj. Rick Thomas said in a phone interview from Guantanamo.
“We have initiated a preliminary inquiry,” said Thomas, a base spokesman. “Typically, until an investigation is complete, it’s inappropriate to discuss any allegations. We take it seriously.”
Nearly 2,800 Haitians have been returned to their homeland since Jan. 1. Of the 771 Haitians who remain at the camps in Guantanamo Bay, 357 are unaccompanied minors. The other refugees are being held for immigration or medical reasons.
Six attorneys visited the Guantanamo base last week and interviewed about 200 children.
The lawyers were not allowed in the detention camps and could not see specific children, said Cheryl Little of Florida Rural Legal Services, another advocacy group for refugees.
Citing affidavits from the interviews, the attorneys said soldiers broke the arms of some children, bloodied noses and put children in solitary confinement.
“I saw a boy who did not want to eat because the food tasted bad,” a 17-year-old Haitian said in one affidavit. “The soldiers put him on his stomach on the ground. Then they handcuffed him. Some of the soldiers stepped on the boy while he was handcuffed on the ground. The boy was then pulled up and made to kneel in punishment.”
Children refusing to pick up trash or throwing oranges were similarly punished, Little said.
Little said most of the children have relatives or willing sponsors to care for them in the United States.
Rene Van Rooyen, a representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in the United States, said officials are trying to determine whether the children can be placed with relatives in Haiti.