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Madagascar pre-trial detainees face 'life-threatening conditions'

Amnesty says 52 people died in 2017 in pre-trial custody as thousands of others faced appalling conditions.

At least 52 people died in Madagascar's prisons last year while awaiting trial due to "appalling prison conditions", according to Amnesty International.

In a report published on Tuesday, the global rights group also said that thousands of people who have not been found guilty of any crime were subject to "life-threatening prison conditions", including severe overcrowding and poor hygiene, as well as lack of food and medical care.

The main causes of death were respiratory problems and cardiovascular diseases, Amnesty said, citing prison authorities. 

The report was based on visits to nine prisons where more than 11,000 people had been placed in pre-trial detention, the group said.

"Many of those being held for extended periods without trial were accused of petty, nonviolent crimes," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's regional director for Southern Africa.

"The poorest, including women and children, with the least recourse to legal help, are those who suffer the most," she added.

Such "unjustified, excessive and prolonged pre-trial detention" violates international and domestic law, and amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, Amnesty said.

Madagascar's Ministry of Justice, in a September letter to Amnesty, said it was aware of the problem. 

The ministry blamed "population growth and an increase in crime rates" for severe overcrowding and said it has "stepped up its efforts" with new laws and policies to improve conditions.

Under Madagascar's national laws, adults can be held for up to five years and six months without trial and children up to 33 months.

Amnesty said Madagascar's prisons hold more people who have not been tried than those found guilty. As of October 2017, 55 percent of the total prison population were pre-trial detainees, the report said. 

One man said he has been in pre-trial custody for three and a half years because he was accused of stealing a cow.

Describing conditions at a prison in Maintirano, west Madagascar, he told Amnesty: "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."

Women and children were disproportionately affected by some of the prison conditions, the report said. 

For example, pregnant women and women with babies do not have access to appropriate healthcare, and children do not have access to education, the group said.

The main reason for long pre-trial detentions in the African country was limited and infrequent court sessions for criminal cases, it added. 

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