Zimbabwean lawyers have condemned purported assaults and death of suspects in police custody, denouncing conditions in holding cells they deemed unfit for human habitation.

"There have been disturbing reports of deaths in police custody and some of our members have reported that some of their clients have been assaulted or coerced to make confessions," Lloyd Mhishi, president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, told a parliamentary committee on human rights on Wednesday. 

"We are talking of people who have been arrested and have not yet been convicted but they are kept in filthy and ill-equipped cells," Mhishi said." Some are clearly uninhabitable."

Human rights groups have decried living conditions in Zimbabwe prisons, saying inmates are often held in crammed cells without functioning bathroom facilities, and offered threadbare and often lice-infested blankets. Low levels of sanitary, little light and poor ventilation systems have together resulted in the widespread of diseases such as diarrhoea, measles, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. 

Overcrowded prisons

According to the 2013 human rights report of the US Embassy in Zimbabwe, there are roughly 17,500 prisoners, including 500 women and 200 juveniles, spread across 46 main prisons and 26 other prison facilities. 

Citing NGOs, the report said 334 persons had sought treatment for injuries and trauma sustained from security force abuse. This compares to 289 persons in 2012.

Observers attribute the increase to the 2013 constitutional referendum in March and the July 31 elections. Nearly 50 percent of the cases took place in the capital, Harare, and the vast majority of the victims were affiliated with the main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T).

While some prisons operated below capacity, NGOs reported that overcrowding continued due to outdated infrastructure and judicial backlogs, the US Embassy's report said.

President Robert Mugabe, who won last year's presidential elections and whose Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party has been at the helm since independence in 1980, is yet to issue his expected postelection presidential amnesty for 3,000 to 3,500 prisoners.

Due to general shortages arising from the southern African nation's economic crisis, lawyers say prisoners are often not provided with food. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said that last year alone, more than 100 prisoners starved to death in the country's jails.

Facing criticism over detainee conditions, Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa in July said the government was working on measures to decongest the country’s prisons with offenders that commit petty crimes being fined or sentenced to community service instead of being jailed

Mhishi noted that in some cases suspects are denied access to legal counsel. "Sometimes lawyers are prevented from seeing their clients," he said.

In other cases, lawyers have been arrested while trying to obtain access to their clients, he said.

Last year prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was put behind bars when she went to see her clients during a police raid on the offices of the MDC-T.

Source: Al Jazeera And AFP