Malta's detention policy for irregular immigrants was heavily criticised by a United Nations working group that described the conditions at Safi and Lyster barracks as appalling and detrimental to the immigrants' health.

The UN Working Group on Arbitary Detention yesterday presented its preliminary findings after a five-day trip that included visits to the detention centres, Corradino Correctional Facilities and meetings with the government.

Rapporteur Manuela Carmena Castrillo said Malta's detention policy raised concerns about the immigrants' detention in an irregular situation, adding that it was not in line with international human rights law.

"We have met an eight-year-old boy, who should not have been detained at all, and a Somali man, suffering from HIV and chicken pox vegetating in a cell in complete isolation, who should rather be in hospital," she said.

The group immediately informed the authorities of the two particular cases and the boy was removed from the closed centres. While praising the government for its prompt action, Ms Castrillo said she hoped that even the Somali will be taken care of.

Malta's automatic detention policy for immigrants which may last up to 18 months "under appalling conditions at the closed centres of Safi and Lyster barracks" was also harshly criticised.

The conditions at the two centres are appalling to the extent that their health, including mental health, is affecting their ability to understand their rights and follow the legal proceedings. The sub-standard closed centres of Safi and Lyster barracks are over-crowded and people living in the tents in Hal Far should not even stay there one day, let alone for months, said Ms Castrillo.

"People who have committed a crime have decent conditions of life in a prison cell at Corradino but irregular immigrants have to live in those conditions," she said.

Ms Castrillo questioned the detention policy which, according to the Maltese immigration law, is resorted to in order to be able to deport individuals from Malta. However, only 2,000 immigrants out of 12,000 were deported since March 2002. This prompts the working group to conclude that detention is used as a deterrent and as a sanction, noted Ms Castrillo.

The processing of asylum applications takes too long, with immigrants still waiting to be interviewed six months after their arrival, she said.

The group also lashed out at Malta's "fast-track" system for vulnerable people, which might take up to three months to release them into open centres.

While admitting that the immigration problem is too large for Malta to tackle alone, Ms Castrillo said the government can and should do more to improve conditions.

The group visited other detention centres such as Corradino Correctional Facility, prison cells at the Police General Headquarters and the closed wards at Mount Carmel Hospital and expressed concern over the long periods of time people awaiting trial spend in prison. More than 50 per cent of the prisoners in Malta are pre-trial detainees, which is a comparably high rate, she said.

The group expressed concern at the high concentration of powers and bodies under the Justice and Home Affairs Ministry. The ministry's wide-ranging portfolio includes the police, correctional services, detention service, the refugees' commission and also receives reports from the prison visitors' board and the Permanent Commission Against Corruption, among others.

Such an accumulation of powers may lead to a perception of lack of transparency and of control within the system of administration of justice, said Ms Castrillo.

Group vice-chairman Malick Sow called on the government to introduce a parole system and criticised its absence in the country's judicial system.

The lack of accessibility to a defence lawyer for people kept in police custody after they are arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal offence was another point of concern. "The absence of a lawyer during this crucial period is a significant blemish on the system," he said.

While praising the maximum period of 48 hours in police custody, the group noted that this was sometimes exceeded. In fact, Mr Sow said they met a man who was kept in police custody for five days.

The group described its various meetings with the authorities as positive and receptive. It will draw up its final report and present it during its 54th working session in Geneva this May.

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