Thursday, October 22, 2009

UN investigator urges convention to protect detainees

The UN's top investigator on torture and punishment called Tuesday for a new UN convention to protect the rights of detainees, saying many are held for years and sometimes for a lifetime in inhuman and degrading conditions.

"In many countries of the world, places of detention are constantly overcrowded, filthy and lack the minimum facilities necessary to allow for a dignified existence," Manfred Nowak said. "Moreover, tuberculosis and other highly contagious diseases are rife."

In a statement to the UN General Assembly committee dealing with humanitarian issues, he said the suffering caused by the few hours of torture in the early days of detention -- often to extract confessions -- is often outweighed by the suffering detainees have to endure for years.

While many people think torture is primarily the fate of political prisoners, Nowak said "in reality, most of the victims of arbitrary detention, torture and inhuman conditions of detention are ordinary people, usually belonging to the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of society" -- including children, the disabled, gays and lesbians, drug addicts, illegal aliens, and members of religious and ethnic minorities.

According to "cautious estimates," he said, more than 1 million children are currently being held in police stations, pre-trial facilities, prisons, closed children's homes and similar places of detention.

"In general, I am alarmed by the very low age of criminal liability in many countries," he said. "During my missions, I came across boys and girls as young as 9 or 10 years who were deprived of their liberty, many of them in prolonged pre-trial detention."

"Far too many of the children whom I met on my visits are held in severely overcrowded cells, under deplorable sanitary and hygienic conditions. Moreover, I have found children deprived of their liberty to be at a very high risk of ill-treatment," he said.

Nowak, an independent investigator appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, told the assembly committee that the "time has come to draft and adopt a special UN Convention on the Rights of Detainees."

One of the most important rights and needs of detainees, he said, "is sufficient contact with the outside world."

Detainees should also enjoy freedom of religion, expression, information and association, and in principle, they should also enjoy the right to vote, Nowak said.

Detainees also have a right "to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing ... (and) to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, which includes the need for medical services in detention facilities," he said.

Nowak said he was encouraged that Uruguay's president got rid of tiny metal boxes that hundreds of convicts and pretrial detainees spent months, and even years, in at the Libertad prison after he denounced the appalling conditions. And he praised Nigeria's former president for closing down a "torture room" at police headquarters in Lagos where more than 100 detainees -- including women -- were subjected to a variety of tortures including gunshots in their legs that were left untreated.

Nowak criticized the government in Equatorial Guinea for rejecting a report on his visit last November and December which said detainees were forced to spend weeks, even months, in dark, filthy police cells with nothing but a concrete floor and no toilets.

Some cells were so overcrowded, he said, that there was no space for all the detainees to sleep at the same time -- a problem he also found in Georgia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Togo and Moldova's separatist Trans-Dniester region.

Nowak said in the coming months he has invitations to visit Zimbabwe and Jamaica, and hopes to go to Cuba and Iran next year. He lamented that most Arab countries, except for Jordan, have not allowed him to visit.

© The Associated Press

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