Amnesty International has disclosed that people who have not been found guilty of any crime are dying in Madagascar’s prisons due to appalling conditions.
Amnesty International made this known today as it released a report highlighting how the Malagasy authorities’ excessive use of pre-trial detention is harming the poorest people in society.
The organization documented how, in 2017 alone, 52 out of the 129 detainees who died in Madagascar’s prisons were in pre-trial detention.
The report, Punished for being poor: unjustified, excessive and prolonged pre-trial detention in Madagascar, is based on visits to nine prisons around the country, where more than 11,000 people have been arbitrarily placed in pretrial detention which often lasts for years.
This has resulted in severe overcrowding which, coupled with lack of food and medical care and unhygienic facilities, is damaging the health of detainees and putting lives at risk.
“A catalogue of failures in Madagascar’s criminal justice system means people are suffering in prison for years before they have their day in court.
In the prisons we visited, many of those being held for extended periods without trial were accused of petty, nonviolent crimes. One man accused of stealing cattle had been in detention for three and a half years,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa.
“None of the prisons we visited separated pre-trial from sentenced prisoners, as is required by international human rights law. This has meant in some cases that children were sharing cells with convicted criminals. The poorest, including women and children, with the least recourse to legal help, are those who suffer the most.”
Madagascar’s abusive pre-trial detention disproportionately affects men, women and children who are poor, not least because they cannot afford their own legal representation. Over the past decade, the rates of pre-trial detention amongst children and women have increased at a worrying rate, while men’s prisons remain severely overcrowded.
As of October 2017, pre-trial detainees comprised 70% of the total number of women in prisons, and 80% of the total number of children in prison.
Amnesty International documented how detainees are often held in lengthy pre-trial detention for petty, non-violent offences such as theft of chickens or mobile phones, or forgery. These offences do not warrant pre-trial detention at all, let alone prolonged detention in horrendous conditions.
International human rights law provide that pre-trial detention must not be the general rule and may not be used for punitive purposes.
The Malagasy authorities’ use of unjustified and prolonged pre-trial detentions also violates Madagascar’s own laws, including the presumption of innocence.
Conditions of detention
Amnesty International visited nine prisons around Madagascar where pre-trial detainees are being held, and witnessed appalling living conditions. Cells are dark, filthy and extremely overcrowded, and lack air or light, posing serious risks to detainees’ physical and mental well-being.
None of the prisons visited separated pre-trial and sentenced prisoners, with three not even appropriately separating children and adults.
The organization also documented poor sanitation, absence of healthcare, lack of adequate food, and limited access for families across all prisons visited.
While the majority of pre-trial detainees are men, women and children are disproportionately affected by some of the conditions in detention. For example, pregnant women and women with babies do not have access to appropriate healthcare, while children often have no access to any educational or vocational activities, in violation of both national and international law.
One man, who has been in pre-trial detention for three and a half years after he was accused of stealing a cow, told Amnesty International:
“Forty-two of us sleep in the same room but there is no room to sleep, I sleep on the floor. A lot of people get sick. Some cough, some shiver, some get very cold. And people fight about food because there isn’t enough… I really want a trial because I really suffer here.”
Another man, who has spent more than a year in prison on charges of kidnapping and criminal association, said: “We sleep only one to two hours per night, it’s really bad… In November and December, it’s deadly, there’s no air. Once, I even collapsed and people had to take me out of there.”
All the prisons visited by Amnesty International were holding detainees far beyond their official capacity.
For example, in September 2018, approximately 700 people were detained in the Manakara prison, which had an official capacity of 121.
Pre-trial detainees, who were in visibly poor health during Amnesty International’s visit, complained about not receiving timely or appropriate medical care. While most of the prisons visited had an infirmary, nurses, medical supplies and facilities were in short supply.
Most cells did not have toilets or showers, and prisoners had to use plastic buckets as toilets during the night in their overcrowded cells.
Prisons visited were not well ventilated and detainees complained about cells and dormitories being filthy, infested with rats and bugs and being extremely hot, conditions which can foster the transmission of diseases. Tuberculosis is one of the primary causes of death for detainees and prisoners in Madagascar.
Inadequate food supply
Malnutrition remains a critical threat to prisoners’ health and lives. Detainees who spoke to Amnesty International complained about meagre food rations, including one woman in Maintirano prison who said that a meal portion could fit in the palm of her hand.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), almost half of the prisoners in Madagascar suffer from moderate or severe malnutrition. In 2015, the ICRC documented 27 deaths in the country’s prisons due to malnutrition.
“Nobody should be held in the life-threatening conditions we saw in Madagascar’s prisons, and certainly not people whose case is still being decided. As well as upholding the presumption of innocence, ending the abusive use of pre-trial detention could help ease the overcrowding which has made Madagascar’s prisons such miserable places,” said Deprose Muchena.
“We are calling on the Malagasy authorities to release pre-trial detainees whose detentions have been unjustified, arbitrary or prolonged – starting with those who are being held for petty offences, or simply because they are poor. The authorities must also provide reparations to victims of unlawful pretrial detention, and take steps to build an effective criminal justice system that respects human rights.”
The biggest issue contributing to long pre-trial detentions in Madagascar is the limited allocation and infrequency of court sessions for criminal cases. Under the Code of Criminal Procedure, criminal court sessions are held twice a year, leading to serious delays and severe prison overcrowding. Additional sessions may be held if the number of cases calls for it, but only if resources are available.
This report is the culmination of field research conducted in Madagascar in nine prisons in August 2017, and follow-up visits in September 2018, to investigate the practice and conditions of pre-trial detention. The nine prisons visited, which included eight central prisons and one maximum security prison, were in both inland and coastal regions.
The organization’s researchers interviewed, among others, men and women who had been held in detention for more than three years, and children for more than two years, without a trial.
Madagascar’s prisons hold more people who have not been tried, let alone convicted, than those found guilty. As of October 2017, 55% of the total prison population were pre-trial detainees.
Under international human rights law, people awaiting trial should not be detained unless there is an assessed risk that the suspected perpetrator may, for example, flee, intimidate a witness or tamper with evidence. The Constitution of Madagascar similarly provides that pre-trial detention is an exception. Individuals awaiting trial or whose trials are still ongoing, and who have not been convicted, are presumed innocent. They also have the right to access legal counsel and the right to be tried within a reasonable time, and to be detained separately from convicted persons among others.