A man has been awarded €25,000 in compensation after the European Court of Human Rights found that the conditions of the Safi detention centre where he was held were inhumane and that his detention pending deportation from Malta was unlawful. 

In its judgment on Thursday in the case brought by Joseph Feilazoo against Malta, the European Court stressed that in terms of the Human Rights  Convention, states have to ensure that people are detained in conditions that respect human dignity and that avoid unnecessary hardship. 

The court furthermore noted that it had already expressed concern about the suitability of the place and the conditions of detention at Safi Barracks where Feilazoo had been detained. 

The 45-year-old admitted drug offences

The ordeal of the 45-year-old Nigerian national started in 2010 when he pleaded guilty to drug offences and received, besides a prison sentence, a fine and costs. As he was unable to pay, he was sentenced to an additional 22 and a half months’ imprisonment. 

Close to his release, Feilazoo stated that he would return to Spain but the Spanish authorities refused him permission to return. On his release, he was deemed to be a “prohibited immigrant” and was at risk of absconding. It was alleged that at one point he had become aggressive and had bitten prison warders. In 2019, he was convicted of this incident and sentenced to imprisonment. 

On appeal, the sentence was reduced and Feilazoo’s immediate deportation ordered. However, he was returned to prison as he was unable to pay the €4,000 fine. Feilazoo claimed that while in prison, he had been moved to different security regimes to impede his access to legal aid. 

He was released on September 14, 2019 only to be put in immigration detention where he remained until November 13, 2020. The Nigerian authorities refused to issue a travel document and so he was never deported. 

Humiliating treatment

In an interview with Times of Malta in April 2014, Feilazoo had recounted how he had been “humiliated” by a full-body search, accused of being a ringleader and transferred into another division the day after he complained about prison food.

He said that the morning after he complained, he was woken up abruptly at 6.30am and taken to a room where he was stripped and “forced to squat and the orifices of his body were searched”.

In his application before the European court, Feilazoo complained about excessive force used on him during his detention, the lack of an investigation into this, his conditions of detention, that some periods of his detention had been unlawful, and that the state had hindered his right of petition before the court.

In its judgement by seven judges, including Maltese judge Lorraine Schembri Orland, the court observed that while Feilazoo had submitted photos of the detention conditions he had been subjected to, Malta’s Attorney General merely relied on “general, unsubstantiated statements”. It also noted that both Feilazoo and the government had not provided sufficient data on the numbers of detainees held and potential overcrowding, so it was unable to draw conclusions on the matter. 

However, the court said it remained concerned about the various other aspects of Feilazoo’s allegations that the government had not rebutted including claims about lack of ventilation, functioning toilets and pests.

Held in solitary confinement without access to natural light for 77 days 

The European Court said it was particularly struck that the applicant had been held alone without access to natural light for 77 days, during much of which time he had also had no access to exercise. The court said it was also very concerned by the unrebutted allegations that the applicant had been housed with people in COVID-19 quarantine without a medical reason to do so.

Regarding his claims that he was subjected to arbitrary interference by the state to his right to freedom, as authorities tried to secure a passport for him, the court said it did not accept that the entire period of detention had clearly been for the purposes of deportation. It ruled that the authorities had not acted with diligence during the fourteen-month detention as it did not appear that the authorities had sufficiently pursued the passport matter with the Nigerian authorities. 

The court concluded that the reasons for the applicant’s detention had therefore not remained valid throughout the whole period, thus finding another violation of his human right to liberty and security.

Ruling on another complaint regarding the protection of applicants from any form of pressure from the authorities to withdraw or modify their complaints, the court found that the Maltese authorities had failed to ensure that Feilazoo was given the possibility of obtaining copies of documents which he had needed to substantiate his application and that his correspondence concerning the case before the court had not been dealt with confidentially, thus amounting to an unjustified interference with his right.

Moreover, the court also found that his representation by a legal aid lawyer was “inadequate” because of a lack of regular lawyer-client contact despite the court’s requests, as well as the inaction on the part of the authorities to rectify the situation. 

Lawyer Ibtisam Sadegh, from the law clinic at the University of Malta, represented Feilazoo. 

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