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Madagascar: Pre-trial deaths in custody revealed

October 23, 2018

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.

A group of pre-trial detainees in Madagascar stand behind half-opened prison bars, facing the cameria
Image: Amnesty International/R. Burton

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.

Dozens of men lie on the ground of an overcrowded prison cell in Madagascar
The majority of cells in the mens' quarters of Manakara prison are severely overcrowdedImage: Amnesty International/R. Burton

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.

A young man leans against a wall and faces away from the camera in the yard of a juvenille prison in Madagascar. Three other boys are huddled together in the background.
Many pre-trial detainees are held for months at a time — including in the juvenile quartersImage: Amnesty International/R. Burton

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.

Seeking justice for helpless inmates

Tamara Leger is the Madagascar adviser with human rights organization Amnesty International.

This interview was conducted by Jan Philipp Wilhelm.