A third of South Africa's political detainees being held without charge under a state of emergency are children, according to police statistics given Friday to the Cape provincial Supreme Court.
Of 4,244 emergency detainees being held on April 15 in prisons and jails, 1,424 were under 18 years of age, according to the police, and 21 of them were as young as 12 and 13.
The police disclosed that the number of children being held without trial was far higher than previous official figures indicated and that children constituted a greater proportion of total detainees.
Police officials defended the controversial practice of detention without trial, even of children, as necessary to restore law and order to the country.
"I wish to submit that the freeing of some of these people would constitute a serious threat to the safety of the public," Gen. Johan Coetzee, the national police commissioner, said in an affidavit filed with the Supreme Court in Cape Town.
Emergency regulations promulgated by President Pieter W. Botha permit the police to hold people indefinitely, and in solitary confinement, with strictly limited access to their families and lawyers. The regulations also permit prison guards to beat detainees or put them on a minimal diet as punishment for any infraction of prison rules.
According to police figures, 14,965 people have been detained since the government imposed a state of emergency last June, and the most ever held was 8,569, in July. The Detainees' Parents Support Committee, a civil rights monitoring group, had estimated that nearly 30,000 had been detained and that about 7,000 were still in custody.
Max Coleman, the committee chairman, said his group has the names of three 11-year-olds and three 12-year-olds still in detention in Johannesburg, although the police said only two children this young were in custody nationwide.
Coleman asked why the government had waited until now, when it faces a court challenge from the opposition Progressive Federal Party, to disclose the figures.
An American civil rights group took full-page advertisements in several South African newspapers Friday to call on the government to stop jailing children.
"Every day, more and more Americans are hearing--despite the iron curtain of censorship--that South African children have been snatched from their homes, from their classrooms and off the streets," ads placed by the Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law said. "What threat can a 13-year-old be to Africa's most powerful military and economic machine? How can an 11-year-old endanger the security of the state? When history looks back, . . . no one inside or outside will be able to say, 'We didn't know.' "