The World's Forgotten

As the UN's top investigator into torture and punishment prepares to end his term later this year, he has focused on a group people whom he has long called the globe's "most vulnerable" to discrimination and to neglect. Detainees, says Dr Manfred Nowak, have become the world's forgotten.

The theme has become central to the Austrian professor's six-year tenure, and in the most recent session of the Human Rights Council this March he strongly reiterated his call for a new convention to protect them.

Where other forms of discrimination are strongly represented in global social movements, the plight of those considered "criminal" tends to raise much less interest and certainly less sympathy. Media coverage is sporadic. While it took sexually explicit photographs to raise interest in US-led abuses in Abu Ghraib, and a steep increase in suicides a few years ago in France (which remains infamous for its shabby prisons), headlines are even harder to make in many Asian countries. Here, accountability remains low and the death count in prison is generally high and poorly documented.

In Indonesia the issue flared up last year when a corruption task force discovered wealthy VIPs in a Central Jakarta prison who had been living in air-conditioned comfort for years, complete with LCD televisions and queen-sized beds, despite overcrowding in many of the country's facilities. The Minister for Justice and Human Rights acknowledged last year that there are up to 130,000 prisoners in prisons built for 80,000; audits are now being undertaken across the country. Indonesia has featured on watchdog lists for its treatment of the incarcerated for decades, as noted in Caveat, an Indonesian human rights e-journal in a January 2010 article calling for transparency.

"Many of Indonesia's prisoners are stripped of their rights," it notes. "[They] are consequently forced to live in filthy unsanitary conditions; become subject to disease; are placed under sever levels of stress due to overcrowding".

Cries for attention from prisoners in Sri Lanka have been less successful. One last year – in which inmates held a five-day hunger strike on the roof of Bogambara Prison, Kandy to demand that they either be tried or allowed bail – was covered by just one news outlet. The strikers are reported to have since been charged with violating prison rules. Many of Sri Lanka's pre-trial inmates are housed along with convicted prisoners and can wait for a trial for years, often under the draconian (and with the war over, arguably redundant) Prevention Against Terrorism Act. "In general there is a belief or a mentality, even among judges and lawyers here, that the detainees deserve bad conditions as a kind of punishment, particularly those accused of being connected to the LTTE whether they've been convicted yet or not," disclosed one Sri Lankan who works on humanitarian programmes in prisons. In short there is a widespread tolerance of the closed, often-murky machinations of prison systems that, in many countries, has encouraged standards to creep towards and beyond the inhumane. "As soon as they are behind bars, detainees lose most of their human rights and often are simply forgotten by the outside world” Novak reiterated this March in Geneva.


A similar point was made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in 2008. "Some rights (such as the right to liberty) are necessarily restricted by detention," she wrote during a campaign to highlight the issue. "But regardless of the reasons why they have been deprived of their liberty, individuals in detention are more vulnerable to human rights violations. The protection of the rights of those in detention is often not deemed a priority by the public, which in turn can dampen government efforts to increase protection."

Novak's recent reports to the UN have been drawn from his missions to 15 countries, including encounters with detainees in Nigeria who had been penned in cells with more than a hundred other inmates and tortured in front of one another, and in Nepal and Sri Lanka where cells were so crowded that inmates couldn't lie down to sleep at the same time. In Uruguay Novak found conditions inhuman for both prisoners and guards, particularly in the maximum security Libertad Prison. Small metal containers had been built there as a tool of punishment for one person, yet were penning in three with barely any light or air (on his recommendation they were dismantled).

Also significant was the evidence that staff in some places of detention such as police stations don't provide inmates with the basics for survival. In Asia the role of feeding or clothing remand prisoners often falls to family members, with countless cases documented of the 'trades' that result, involving goods from families being ‘taxed' by police or prison guards.

The family of Bangladeshi NGO director and journalist Abdur Razzak, in a case reported and meticulously tabulated by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in March last year, was obliged to provide Paikgachha police officers with nearly BDT30,000 and one goat, over 40 occasions during his 12-week detention, sometimes to allow in food and mosquito coils, others as protection against beatings and torture. Since his charges had been falsified he was later released, but not compensated. ( .

Reports from social workers in Cambodian facilities speak of prisoners who must pay to shower, and from India, of those who must either pay staff to be produced in court or be detained indefinitely (if they don't have access to a lawyer). Without money or family support inmates can simply die, Nowak said, unless they abase themselves by performing 'services' for other prisoners or staff in exchange for provisions.

In Burma, where the military junta still bars the Red Cross from its prisons, this situation is systematically exploited. According to the AHRC and journalists at Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, political prisoners are nearly always placed in prisons that are hundreds of kilometers from their home towns and thus from any form of support.

In the Philippines the question of detainees' right to health came up in 2008 and 2009 with the deaths from tuberculosis of two remanded labor rights activists. Melvic Lupe, 29, and Leo Paro, 25, had been fit two years ago when they were remanded in Cainta City Jail after striking against Karnation Industries and Export Inc, a home décor company. Their families accuse the prison authorities of criminal neglect, and say that they have been unable to find out whether the men had been medically treated, or to obtain a copy of the medical report. Like many in their situation the men had been essentially sealed away, though they had not yet even been convicted.

Indeed, thanks to immense delays in justice and widespread corruption, many of those imprisoned in developing countries have either not been subject to fair trial or been tried at all. According to the latest World Pre-trial Imprisonment List 2.5 million people were known to be held in pre-trial detention (and other forms of remand imprisonment) throughout the world in October 2007 (and about another quarter of a million are held in the countries on which such data can't be gathered).

In Bangladesh the WPIL has documented that 68 percent of its prison population is such. In Thailand it put the pre-trial population at 33,000, and this number rises through Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines to India, where it rests at about 250,000 (though a decline is imminent now thanks to a initiative, announced in January 2010, to release 135,000 'under-trials in prisons across the country). Figures are hard to come by for China but the organization estimates that it may be holding as many as 100,000 untried prisoners.

Untried persons can be inside for years. Thailand's Somphon Dechanuphap and Nen Mahavilai were in remand prison for seven years of a 15-year trial; they were convicted for a further 16 each in 2008 on allegedly trumped-up charges.

During his missions Nowak also discovered people being held for weeks without toilet access in police cells in Equatorial Guinea: they would defecate and urinate in the lunch bags and bottles sent in by their families. Cells in the backs of police stations may be equipped to keep suspects for a few hours but they are widely used to hold them arbitrarily for much longer.

"If more than 50 percent of all detainees, and in some countries up to 80 percent, are in pre-trial detention, something is wrong," the March report noted. "It usually means that criminal proceedings last far too long, that the detention of criminal suspects is the rule rather than the exception, and that release on bail is misunderstood by judges, prosecutors and prison staff as an incentive for corruption".

Many detainees, Novak found, did not even know whether or not they had already been convicted by a court.

The rapporteur's call for action this year therefore extends to the judicial systems – to the funding and political will needed to get them functioning credibly – as a way of ensuring that prison conditions are checked and challenged regularly. But his request for a convention is more specific. Unlike many of the existing international principles and guidelines for the treatment of prisoners, a convention would legally bind countries into a communication channel with experts on the issue; it would hold states regularly and comprehensively accountable if signed, and even if unsigned would encourage a measure of state self-reflection and review.

As Novak's five years or so of reports have shown, prisons tend to bring out the worst in people on both sides of the bars. Those who have lost their right liberty – validly or not – need their remaining rights protecting with even more vigilance.