Police have detained and questioned an eight-year-old boy from the south of France who reportedly claimed to support the men who attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, drawing criticism from rights group who say authorities have gone overboard.

Fabienne Lewandowski, deputy director for public security in the Alpes-Maritimes region, told BFM television on Thursday that the boy declared "The French must be killed. I am with the terrorists. The Muslims did well, and the journalists got what they deserved." 

"The reason we questioned him was to determine what could have influenced, what could have driven this child to say something like this," Lewandowski said.

"It's a shame that it happened in a formal questioning, but given what he said it was necessary to go further than usual."

To believe that an eight-year old could have anything to do with inciting violence is really worrying.

Izza Leghtas, Human Rights Watch

She said the child also reportedly refused to take part in the national minute of silence for the victims on January 9.

The school director brought a complaint against the child on January 21, and he was questioned with his father and a lawyer present.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, a Muslim rights group, questioned the official version of the event, as it warned against "mass hysteria" following the attack of the Charlie Hebdo satirical publication in Paris in early January that killed 12 people.   

The Committee against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) said that the child, whom it identified as Ahmed, was asked by his teacher if "he is Charlie".

"The eight-year old boy, who is Muslim, explains that he refuses Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the prophet, and naively says that is his on the terrorists’ side," the statement said. 

CCIF also said that the child, a third grader, reported that he has been "psychologically abused" and humiliated by his teachers. The child, who is suffering from diabetes, also said that after the incident, "teachers took his insulin from him".

CCIF said that during police questioning, the boy was asked if he knows what terrorism is, and he reportedly answered: "I don't know."

John Dalhuisen, spokesperson for the UK-based rights organisation Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera, that while full details of the case are still unclear, he said that there appears "to be elements of overreaction", and it raises concerns "whether the questioning was justified". 

"The inclusion, according to the lawyer, of questioning in relation to the possible commission of the offence of defending terrorism by an eight-year old boy would appear to be completely inappropriate."

Dalhuisen said that under French law, minors under 15, can be questioned by police.

A child younger than 10 years old cannot be subjected to any criminal sanctions. But "social and educational measures" can be meted if the child is aware of his or her actions.  

'Completely unreal'

Dozens of people have been arrested and accused of defending terrorism since the attacks, with some already drawing yearslong prison terms in special expedited court proceedings. But the child from the southern city of Nice appears to be the youngest by far.

Sefen Guez Guez, a lawyer for the family, said the decision to question the child at a police station that day shows a "collective hysteria."

"An eight-year-old does not belong in a police station. This is disproportionate and completely unreal," he told Associated Press news agency.

CCIF said that what happend at school "deeply traumatised" the school grade boy, and "he now suffers from sleep and behavioural disorders".

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Izza Leghtas, a spokesperson for New York-based Human Rights Watch, also raised concerns about the "selective" application of a "problematic provision" of the French law on inciting terrorism, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. 

"To believe that an eight-year old could have anything to do with inciting violence is really worrying," Leghtas said.

"For a country that for the past week has been saying that it stands up for freedom of expression, this is a very selective use of freedom of expression [law] and it really undermines its credibility."

With additional reporting by Ted Regencia. Follow him to Twitter: @tedregencia.

Source: AP