A third of prisoners in Commonwealth countries are pre-trial detainees – new report

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A third of prisoners in Commonwealth countries are pre-trial detainees – new report
A third of prisoners in Commonwealth countries are pre-trial detainees – new report

Africa-Press – Rwanda. Of the 1.5 million prisoners detained across the Commonwealth, more than half a million are pre-trial detainees, a new report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) says.

The report was launched in Kigali on Tuesday, June 21, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Pre-trial detention refers to the practice of depriving individuals of their fundamental freedoms by detaining them in the custody of law enforcement agencies or prisons before they are tried by a competent court or other judicial authority.

Such detentions, according to the CHRI, should not be common – as they should be used by law enforcement agencies as a measure of last resort and in very limited circumstances, since the detainee has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The report is one of a series produced by the CHRI every two years for consideration at the CHOGM. This year’s edition of the report was premised on relevant information collected from each of the 54 Commonwealth countries using research questionnaires.

The questionnaires, among others, sought statistical data about pre-trial detentions in each country. They as well garnered substantive information about legal frameworks applicable to various stages of the criminal proceedings in every country.

According to findings, in at least 15 Commonwealth countries, pre-trial detainees form more than half of the total prison population.

“Thousands of persons, presumed innocent until proven guilty, spend years in detention waiting for their trials to conclude. For those thousands, the presumption appears to have become guilty until proven innocent,” said Prof Alison Duxbury, the Chair of the International Board of the CHRI.

Looking at regions, the highest share of pre-trial detainees is in Asia at 42.9% followed by the Caribbean and Americas at 38.5%, while Oceania nations have the lowest average at 22.5%.

The report laments the non-availability of data on the period of detention of pre-trial detainees, something that makes it difficult to identify the exact length of time spent in detention in the countries.

“Some studies on the impact of pre-trial detention in Africa reported that in 2013 the average period of pre-trial detention in countries like Sierra Leone and Ghana was 20 months, in comparison with three years in Nigeria,” it says.

Prolonged periods of detention impact the physical and mental health of detainees, the report warns, pointing out in particular the mentally challenging issues. For example, it is noted, overcrowding of cells and lack of access to safe and potable water, inadequacy of sanitation facilities, food and basic living conditions and necessary medical care affect individuals inside detention centres.

The report called for effective implementation of existing laws, adding that it is imperative to also identify the gaps and shortcomings in existing legal frameworks, because it is due to “these gaps that often pre-trial detentions go unnoticed and remain unaddressed for long periods of time.”

In Rwanda, the investigator has five days to present a suspect to the prosecutor, and the prosecutor has another five days to present a suspect to the judge for provisional detention.

In cases where the accused, or suspect, is caught red-handed, the investigator presents them to the prosecutor within 72 hours of arrest. And the prosecutor then has five days to decide to present the suspect before the judge.

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