BAGHDAD, 30 July (IRIN) - He isn't a criminal, but just the sight of a police officer terrifies 14-year-old Omar.
The boy was released last month from an Iraqi prison, after being detained there for more than seven months. "They arrested me because they said I was a suspect after a car bomb exploded in a road near my home and resulted in the killing of an American," Omar explains. He happened to be near the explosion and was arrested along with adult Iraqis suspected of the attack.
Omar was one of 450 detainees who were let out of the two Iraqi and US-run prisons on 27 June, under a national reconciliation plan aimed at bringing insurgents into the political process and ending the bloodshed in Iraq.
Although Omar was falsely arrested, dozens of other children have been imprisoned for their roles in attacks, or because poverty turned them to crime, according to reports from local and international groups and the news media in the past three years.
Omar said the experience of being in prison was terrifying, "and I was crying day and night for my family." The trauma of the experience remains with him: "I would rather die than go there again."
Whatever the reason for arrest, Iraqi children are sometimes kept in the same place as adults, human rights groups say. When they leave prison, there is no psychological or other support for them to help prevent their returning to the streets and crime.
"Iraqi children prisoners are suffering from a lack of assistance to help them reintegrate into society, which opens the door for the worst criminal life," says Saleh Muhammad, a spokesman for a Baghdad-based child rescue association.
According to international human rights law, children who have been detained should be kept in a special place apart from adults, and should receive special treatment and for the minimum time possible. But in Iraq, some claim that children are detained more than two years in prisons with adults.
"I was arrested with my cousin in September 2004 when I was 14," said another child prisoner, Moussa, who was accused of participating in the insurgency but was released last year. He said prisoners were tortured with electrical shock and being bitten by dogs. "In many cases we saw colleagues returning to our jail after being raped by soldiers."
The Iraq government rejected the claim that children are being held for long periods. Officials said a few youths are arrested when they are suspected of participation in terrorism, but are only held long enough for interrogation.
"It is really complicated to find how many children are being held in Iraq prisons because they are there for a very short period of time," said Lt. Col. Hassan Obaid, senior officer in the Ministry of Interior. He said there would be no more than 100 at any one time nationwide held for interrogations.
"For sure there are cases of children who have committed serious crimes and even terrorism that promoted the killing of innocent people - but they are in special jails," Obaid said.
He said there were no children among the prisoners released by the government last month. Local groups such as the Prisoners' Association for Justice (PAJ), Relief for Innocent Children Victims of War (RICVW) and Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict (CIVIC) say differently.
"They do not want the issue to have international repercussions, so they release the adults in front of the cameras and the children behind it," said Farouk Saleh, spokesperson for RICVW.
"We have received information that seven children were among the prisoners released, five from Anbar governorate and two from the capital, Baghdad, but we have reached only three of them," added Saleh.
Thousands of detainees remain in US custody in Iraq, according to media reports but there is no official estimate of how many of them are children.
The US media office in Iraq said that according to their information, there are no children being held in US custody. They said only some are being taken for few hours' interrogation.
Khalid Rabia'a, spokesman for the PAJ, says that his group has conducted investigations into the problem in secret meetings with Interior Ministry sources and by talking to released prisoners. According to this research, nearly 200 children are being held in Iraq's prisons today for different causes. He said at least two children and their parents come to his offices every week looking for assistance.
"This is not a political game - they are children and their rights should be respected," says Rabia'a. "They are trying to conceal the reality, but the truth is that they are there and they need special assistance before and after their release."
In Iraq, there is no organisation specialised in helping children reintegrate into society after being held in prison.
An official at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs says that the current lack in funds has paralysed many projects, including those for children who have committed crimes.
"Such children need serious help to prevent them from going back to the streets looking for drugs or crime," said a senior official in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs who requested anonymity. "We are trying to use our existing departments to help them, but such cases require specialized centres which Iraq lacks."
Dr Emaad Abdul-Hassan, a psychiatrist in Baghdad, has offered his services to the PAJ especially for child prisoners. He's found serious psychological problems and an increase in aggression and brutality among these patients ľ in particular, a desire for revenge.
"They return from prison just thinking of revenge for what they have suffered there," Abdul-Hassan said. "Some claim they were raped and others that they were tortured or suffered beatings by officers. But right now they are afraid to speak ů afraid that they would be arrested again."
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), child prisoners should have access to lawyers and their families, should be kept safe, healthy, educated, well-fed, and not be subjected to any form of mental or physical punishment.
UNICEF's efforts to get more information on the fate of children held in Iraqi and US custody have been delayed by the current security situation and lack of access.