Locked up and punished for being poor in Madagascar, Amnesty International

Madagascar: Unjustified, excessive and prolonged pre-trial detention keeps thousands in life-threatening prison conditions

Madagascar: Unjustified, excessive and prolonged pre-trial detention keeps thousands in life-threatening prison conditions

  • 52 pre-trial detainees died in Madagascar’s prisons in 2017
  • Many pre-trial detainees, including children and women, held in lengthy detentions for petty crimes such as minor theft
  • Appalling conditions of detention amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

People who have not been found guilty of any crime are dying in Madagascar’s prisons due to appalling conditions, Amnesty International said 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.

Compromised health

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.

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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.”

Justice delayed

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.


Punished for being poor: Pretrial detention in Madagascar


In Madagascar, the excessive use of pre-trial detention disproportionately affects the poor and marginalized of society.

People accused of petty crimes, even children, are forced to stay in overcrowded and unhygienic prisons. In most prisons, there are more people awaiting trial than have been sentenced, and the broken justice system can delay trials for years.

“It’s like a concentration camp here. We need more air”.

Madagascar’s prisons hold more people who have not been convicted than those found guilty. As of October 2017, 55% or more than half of the total prison population were pretrial detainees. Unjustified, excessive and lengthy use of pre-trial detention violates the rule of law, contributes to overcrowding of detention facilities, wastes public resources, and endangers the health and the rights of detainees, families and communities.

Tell the Malagasy authorities to ensure that all detainees are treated humanely and have their other human rights respected and protected.

Take action now

Amnesty International

Under international human rights law, it must not be the general rule for people awaiting trial to be detained. Pre-trial detainees, that is, individuals awaiting trial or whose trials are still ongoing, and who have not been convicted, are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Under international law they also have the rights, among others, to access to counsel, and to free legal services for indigent detainees, the right to be tried within a reasonable time, and to detained separately from convicted persons.

Punished for being poor

Severe overcrowding, coupled with lack of food and medical care and unhygienic facilities, is damaging the health of detainees and putting lives at risk.

Lost in the system

Prisons are dilapidated, ill-equipped, with lack of financial, material and general support. Prison staff complained about the lack of resources, ranging from sheets of paper, to computer equipment, furniture and transportation.

Amnesty International

Madagascar’s prolonged pre-trial detention violates a range of human rights, including the right to liberty, presumption of innocence, and to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. In fact, the miserably poor conditions of detention in which pre-trial detainees are held clearly amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

16-year-old Ivoko, held in pre-trial detention in the Farafangana central prison

Amnesty International

The majority of pre-trial detainees surveyed by Amnesty International were poor, from rural areas, lacked formal education and were underinformed of their rights. Not only do poor people unduly suffer pre-trial detention, often unable to hire lawyers, they are also disproportionately impacted by it. Their health, indeed lives, are threatened by the government’s failure to provide adequate food, healthcare, and sanitary conditions of detention, they are less likely than those with money to afford to buy food, clothes, mattresses and blankets within the prison, or receive them from outside, to improve their conditions.

Florent, in pretrial detention for three years, seven months

Amnesty International

While the majority of pre-trial detainees were men (89%), affected more directly by the lengthy and inhumane conditions of detention and the severe overcrowding, women (6%) and children (5%) were disproportionately affected by some of its consequences through gender based and aged-based violations.

For example, pregnant women and women with babies do not have access to appropriate healthcare. Children often do not have access to any educational or vocational activities, in violation of Madagascar’s own laws. The pre-trial detention rate amongst women and children has increased at a worrying rate over the past ten years.

Regional Director responsible for MC Manakara Prison, Madagascar

Amnesty International

Even in cases when individuals are released after a few months of pre-trial detention, their incarceration can have long-lasting consequences. They are likely to have lost their jobs, and to have plunged deeper into poverty. With the conditions they are held in, many are also likely to walk out of prison in a weaker physical and mental state.

Authorities of Madagascar must take immediate steps to ensure that pre-trial detention is an exception, rather than the rule. They must also ensure that all
detainees are treated humanely and have their other human rights respected and protected.

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Madagascar: Pre-trial detainees held in ‘life-threatening conditions’

A new report from Amnesty International has revealed up to 52 pre-trial detainees died in prison last year while awaiting trial in «appalling» conditions. DW spoke with one of the report’s authors about the findings.

The report, titled ‘Punished for being poor: Unjustified, excessive and prolonged pre-trial detention in Madagascar,’ details a number of human rights violations, including a lack of food and medical care, severe overcrowding and poor hygiene. The main causes of death were cardiovascular diseases and respiratory problems.

Many of those being held for extended periods — up to 11,000 — were accused of petty, non-violent crimes.

DW spoke with Amnesty International’s Madagascar researcher, Tamara Leger, about the report’s findings and what should be done to improve the situation.

DW: According to the report that you co-authored, 52 pre-trial detainees died in prison in Madagascar in 2017, meaning that these people literally passed away while waiting for their trial. What’s wrong with the criminal justice system in Madagascar?

Tamara Leger: Our research has shown that more than half of the people who are in prison are awaiting trial, meaning that, according to international law, they are still presumed innocent. However, the prison conditions which they are kept in really do not protect that presumption of innocence. We have found a really serious lack of food, a lack of access to healthcare, lack of access to family, and the overwhelming majority — between 80 and 90 percent — had never seen a lawyer. This violates international and regional law, but also Madagascar’s own laws.

Why does Madagascar put so many people in pre-trial detention in the first place?

Magistrates have a tendency to put people in pre-trial detention until their trial. This violates international law, which provides that pre-trial detention must be an exception. All alternatives to detention must be explored as a priority and this is particularly true for women and children. When we were in the field, we found a lot of children from the age of 13 being held in pre-trial detention, including for petty and non-violent offenses, such as theft of a vanilla pod or theft of a chicken. And for women it was the same. A lot of them are being held on minor, non-violent offences which absolutely do not justify being held in detention, particularly in these conditions.

The majority of cells in the mens’ quarters of Manakara prison are severely overcrowded

The report is called «Punished for being poor.» How does poverty come into play here?

The poorest people are the most likely to end up in pre-trial detention for several reasons. First of all, because the petty offences which they are detained for are linked to poverty. Research has shown that when you are stealing a chicken, this is linked to a state of poverty. They are also more likely to end up in prison because they can’t afford to have a lawyer and obviously being able to afford a lawyer diminishes your chances of going to pre-trial detention as your lawyer is able to advocate for your case. And then unfortunately once they are in prison, the poor are those who suffer the most from the detention. So imagine these prisons where you have very, very little to eat. The prisoners showed us the quantity that, basically, can sit in the palm of your hand. This is what you get for a day. They complain that the food tastes very bad and often had worms in it. If you’re poor, you’re not able to buy additional food. So that means you rely simply on this and this explains the numbers, very very high between 70 and 80 percent, according to estimates, of people who are malnourished. So it’s really a problem that disproportionately affects the poorest individuals.

Can you talk us through some of what you and your colleagues witnessed in Malagasy prisons?

Absolutely. So the first thing, which is very important, is because of this excessive and unjustified use of pre-trial detention, the prisons are severely overcrowded. Throughout the country all the prisons hold more than twice their official capacity. But in reality, when you visit the prisons, it’s much worse. For example last month we were in a prison called Manakar, where approximately 700 detainees were held, and the capacity of the prison was only 121. So you can imagine walking around an overcrowded courtyard, where they spend the entire day under the scorching sun with very little shade. And at night they are all taken into big overcrowded cells. There are no individual cells, so the pre-trial detainees stay in the same cells as convicted criminals, which obviously poses serious issues in terms of their safety and also their presumption of innocence. They all sleep all in the same room, which often holds up to eight times the capacity, which means sometimes they don’t even have enough room to lie down. So they take turns to sleep. And also there aren’t any toilets with running water. We found a lot of diseases. Tuberculosis is one of the main causes of death in the prison, because obviously there’s also a lack of access to healthcare and to medical attention.

Many pre-trial detainees are held for months at a time — including in the juvenile quarters

So with all of these findings, what do you believe has to be done to improve the situation?

We are really calling, first of all, for the government and the Malagasy authorities to realize that this is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. We are asking the authorities to take all necessary measures in law, in policy but also in practice, to end this arbitrary excessive and prolonged use pre-trial detention. We also have noted because it’s the poorest who are the most targeted by this excessive use of pre-trial detention, that they [should] guarantee real equality before the law. This means for example that everybody should have access to a lawyer before their trial, from the time of arrest. And for those who cannot afford to pay, this lawyer should be provided free of charge. And finally we are also calling for the release of pre-trial detainees whose detentions have been arbitrary, for those who’ve been held for too long without a trial. And for the government to urgently adopt a national action plan, which means it needs to have complete and time-bound goals to improve the conditions of detention in Madagascar and bring them in line with international standards.


Coronavirus evacuees battle cockroaches, bad internet on first night on Christmas Island

Updated February 05, 2020 09:26:14

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Australians evacuated from the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan say they have been greeted with cockroaches in their bedrooms and poor internet connections on their first night of quarantine on Christmas Island.

Key points:

  • Multiple evacuees say hygiene standards at the detention centre are poor
  • One family says they found a cockroach in their bedroom among other insects
  • Many are worried about shared spaces and the risk of infected people spreading the virus

There are 240 Australian citizens and permanent residents currently being housed in the island’s detention centre, among them 84 children under 16 and five infants under two.

They may soon be joined by more evacuees, and will spend two weeks at the near-empty detention centre in a restricted «isolation area».

Photos sent to the ABC by evacuee Belinda Chen, who is at the centre with two of her children, showed a cockroach on the floor of their room.

What you need to know

She said she was concerned about poor hygiene standards at the detention centre, and that her children were «too scared to touch their beds».

«The hygiene issues make it worse than a prison,» Ms Chen said.

«I understood that there would be very limited facilities here, but the actual condition is no facilities at all.

«It’s thousands of times worse than I imagined.»

Another family told the ABC the cot provided for their infant was unclean, and that their bedsheets appeared to be unwashed.

However, others said hygiene conditions were «acceptable» in parts of the compound. One evacuee named Jim described it as being «better than camping», and said his bedroom was «very simple but clean».

«Except the shared bathroom, everything else is okay,» he said.

Evacuee Kai Zhang told the ABC conditions were «not very good, but still acceptable».

«The only thing I’m not used to is the food here, it’s not very ideal for us. I hope with more staff to follow up our conditions, this can be improved,» he said.

Photos obtained by the ABC show some families appear to have bunk beds in their rooms, with minibar fridges and air conditioning units. The bathrooms appear to have metal toilets with plastic lids.

Some parents said they had to remain in specific areas of the centre, where they shared bathrooms and play equipment with other families housed in the same compound.

From Wuhan to Australia

«I felt sick when I walked into the bathroom, there were bugs and flies everywhere,» Ms Chen said.

«The content on the page looks really nice, but the library and gym are not available to us,» said another evacuee who only want to be known as Helen.

«It looks completely different from what the Government showed us in their photos.»

Meanwhile, Sydney resident Gloria Zeng said she didn’t expect «too much» of the detention centre so she wasn’t too disappointed.

«But I saw people who have high expectations are complaining,» she said.

«The courtyard is big for the kids to run around but there is no sunscreen.»

She said staff at the detention centre had created a welcome painting at the entrance and were treating children and the elderly well.

A leaflet in simplified Chinese given to evacuees ahead of their arrival at Christmas Island said, «Welcome home» and that the detention centre would provide «every facility and service» they needed during their stay.

«It has secure and hygienic accommodation, food and beverage, medical facilities, internet, canteen, library, gym, sport facilities, prayer room and many other spaces for your activities, including an outdoor recreation area,» it said.

«We also provide appropriate food, furniture and toys for young children and infants.»

‘Worse than self-isolation’

The ABC asked evacuees for further photographic evidence, however limited internet access on the island made this difficult.

Some evacuees have little to no mobile reception or internet on the island. One parent said the only area with wi-fi coverage was the detention facility’s office.

Evacuees said they were given a $10 credit for the centre’s public phones, in case they needed to call a doctor late at night.

However, they said nobody answered when they called the phone number provided last night.

Many of the evacuees said they were worried about the risk of contracting coronavirus in the centre, due to multiple family groups sharing the same bathrooms and other public facilities.

«It feels like we are a group of animals,» one evacuee said, adding that they thought self-isolation at home would be a more effective form of quarantine.

«It’s even more dangerous than staying in Wuhan, it is life-threatening conditions here, it is worse than self-isolation in Wuhan.»

Despite the complaints, Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt defended the choice of Christmas Island as the site for evacuees.

«We think it was the right decision for the right reasons. It’s provided confidence to the country,» he told reporters.

«What we have been able to do is set up in just a couple of days the support needed for these people.

«The AUSMAT [Australian Medical Assistance Teams] was deployed straight up.

«The work was done over the weekend to continue to complete the establishment of a mobile medical facility.»

The ABC approached the Department of Home Affairs for comment on the allegations, but it did not respond by publication time.

Speaking to Radio National Breakfast this morning, Border Force commissioner Michael Outram said he was aware of the complaints about conditions at the centre.

«We’ll deal with those particular Australians in relation to their expectations, and where we can we’ll meet those expectations,» he said.

«But it is a fairly austere facility compared to where they would have come from, in hotels and homes.»

Mr Outram said there was a detailed infection control plan in place at the Christmas Island detention centre, which included protocols to «ensure the infection doesn’t spread» during the quarantine period.

A second evacuation flight from Wuhan with Australians on board left the virus-struck city en route to Auckland in New Zealand overnight.

The Air New Zealand flight will also be taking 70 New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders, with Australian passengers to be transferred home on a dedicated flight after landing in Auckland.

The global death toll from the coronavirus outbreak hit 426 on Tuesday, 425 of them occurred in China, while the total number of cases reached 20,438.


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