An Egyptian man is claiming he was stripped to his boxers and put in solitary confinement for four days after informing a detention officer he was served food that he said made him sick.
The man told his lawyer he was forced to sleep on a concrete floor and could not contact his lawyer or relatives.
In a separate incident, a Moroccan national is claiming to have been handcuffed and beaten up by an officer after complaining about living conditions at the so-called China House. He said he was then kept in a room with a mattress and a toilet for four hours.
According to their lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, the two detainees did not pose any risk to themselves or others.
“I spent four days in there, sleeping on concrete. It was excruciating. The only thing I saw were the security guard’s arms reaching through the door to provide me with food.
“There was a small toilet in the cell, however, I had nowhere to shower,” the Egyptian national told his lawyer. His solitary confinement allegedly follows an incident where he was handed food that is not gluten-free.
“I told the security guard it was not my food and he started swearing and shouting ‘are you expecting me to bring you lunch from home? I don’t work for you’… he uttered disparaging comments about my mother before taking out a banana from his bag.
“He sat behind a gate and from behind the railings started showing me the banana, saying ‘look at what I have’ while rubbing his belly,” the man told his lawyer.
Upset, he threw away the food and went to his bed, but soon after he claims he was handcuffed and taken to a building that has been split into “cells” with small windows.
A fellow detainee who sleeps in a separate block claims he was detained in a room for four hours before being let out by a “good guard”.
The Moroccan man told his lawyer he was handcuffed and beaten after complaining about living conditions: “I tried covering my face. I begged him to stop but he hit more. I cried with all my might as I was shocked. I had done nothing wrong, and I was scared he would hurt me. The other securities didn’t do anything.”
Confinement is temporary – ministry
When contacted, the Home Affairs Ministry told Times of Malta that confinement is allowed by law when a detainee poses a risk to himself or other detainees.
Such confinement is temporary and must be authorised by the detention services management or a medical practitioner, a spokesperson said.
She added that detainees are continuously monitored during their time in confinement, while the place has showers, toilets and non-tear blankets to prevent self-harm.
Detainees have access to outdoor areas and the place is equipped with an air-conditioning unit.
He uttered disparaging comments about my mother before taking out a banana from his bag
The spokesperson added that reports of excessive use of force are investigated by management and over the past months there were no reports of injured migrants “during interventions by the officers”.
“Detention centres are equipped with cameras for security and accountability. This is not the first-time similar allegations were reproduced in the media without any evidence whatsoever.
Nevertheless, she said the detention service would investigate tangible information on alleged wrongdoing shared with management.
"Such reports may also be passed on to the pertinent authorities directly for the necessary investigation and subsequent action," she added.
The spokesperson also noted that detainees are provided food according to special dietary needs or medical conditions. There are currently 258 migrants on a special diet.
Calls for investigation
Social wellbeing experts, including the dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing Andrew Azzopardi, have called on the authorities to abolish solitary confinement which, according to research, increases the likelihood of a person committing violent crimes.
Azzopardi urged the police commissioner to investigate the alleged grievances described by the two detainees, once politicians and detention officers were “dubious and cryptic” in their reactions.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, and this narrative doesn’t seem to digest well in this regard.
“Our wrongful institutional practices based on coercion and duress are far from what people, who have taken a most dramatic journey towards a better future, merit,” he said, calling for an internal investigation, proper training, monitoring of officers by social workers, free and indiscriminate media access to all sections and operations of the centres, and round-the-clock access to lawyers.
“Dignity is not a luxury but a right, whatever the individual’s status,” he said.
Referring to the two narratives, he said the bullying tactics were reminiscent of apartheid tactics than a concerted effort to comfort traumatised people.
“Justifying solitary confinement is once again confirmation that we are not investing enough in care plans, social work and youth work intervention. Instead, we are taking the easy road of breaking up people.”
Aditus director Neil Falzon and JRS Malta director Katrine Camilleri also called for an investigation of the “shocking accounts and extremely serious allegations”.
The Home Affairs Ministry and the police should investigate them as soon as possible, ensuring the perpetrators are immediately removed from detention services and face justice, they told Times of Malta.
They noted that custodial facilities should have clear rules on how detained people are treated. These include guarantees of oversight of disciplinary measures through, among others, a register on the use of solitary confinement and other forms of punishment, and the possibility to appeal decisions and make complaints.