Degrading and inhuman treatment is not inevitable


Brussels, 26 June 2015 – On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) recalls that countless people are also victims of inhuman and degrading treatment. These practices often arise from appalling detention conditions in many countries in a post-conflict situation or in transition. ASF is calling for a reduction in the use of detention.

Along with deliberate acts of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment constitutes a serious violation of human rights. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, when asked about their conditions of detention, the first thing that detainees the world over mention is not the torture they endure while in custody or in prison; above all they complain of a shortage of water and food and a lack of medical treatment, even for serious illnesses. The detainees also emphasise the violence, humiliation, discrimination and exploitation that they frequently suffer from.

“Prison overcrowding and shocking detention conditions in many countries are forms of inhuman and degrading treatment”, confirms Bruno Langhendries, ASF expert in legal assistance.

The observations made by ASF and our partners in prisons in countries such as Burundi, DR Congo, Uganda, and Tunisia are indisputable. “The terrible detention conditions in the prisons in which we work are not solely the result of deliberate acts committed by the authorities against detainees, but the result is the same: detainees endure inhuman and degrading treatment on a daily basis”, reports Bruno Langhendries.

For instance, in DR Congo, ASF has observed in several prisons that almost one detainee in two reports suffering assault or corporal punishment inflicted by guards or fellow detainees. Besides such physical harm, the detention conditions are inhuman. The cells have no running water and are overcrowded (the overcrowding rate can go up to 400%); detainees often have to survive on less than one litre of water a day. Many of them sleep on the floor and share one blanket between five people. When such situations become entrenched, detainees experience them as genuine acts of torture.

This cannot be explained solely by the lack of budgetary and physical resources to renovate prison facilities in DR Congo and other countries. In countries where ASF is active, 6 to 8 detainees out of 10 are awaiting trial. Pre-trial detention can range from several months to several years for minor offences such as vagrancy or theft. “The treatment suffered in detention is not inevitable. These violations are often the result of excessive use of detention as an immediate means of repressing people who are presumed innocent”, concludes the ASF expert.

For nearly ten years, ASF has been engaged in fighting inhuman and degrading treatment committed in detention by implementing actions aimed at curtailing the use of detention and bringing about a lasting reduction in the extremely high rate of people in pre-trial detention compared to the prison population as a whole.

Specifically, with support of the Belgian Development Cooperation, ASF’s partners – in particular lawyers’ associations – strengthen the ability of people in detention to better engage with lawyers and prison officials by making them aware of their rights; the systematic representation of detainees by lawyers so that judges’ rulings on the legality of detention can lead to systemic changes. The impact is beginning to be felt, for example in Burundi, where the rate of pre-trial detention has dropped by almost to 15 % in the last five years.

Finally, ASF advocates and brings together various stakeholders in the justice system to seek lasting solutions for reducing the number of cases of abuse, while at the same time improving the situation in prisons.

Cover picture: © ASF/Tim Op de Beeck