In Madagascar, people awaiting trial for petty crimes – men, women, and children – are being imprisoned in inhumane pre-trial detention jails.  A biased judicial system means that the poorest of society are confined in severely cramped and germ-infested conditions  – sometimes for years – before they will even go to trial.

A 16-year-old name Ivoko, who is currently being held, told Amnesty International: “When we sleep it hurts because we lie on the ground. I don’t have anything to cover myself [with] when it gets cold.” The Regional Director for MC Manakara Prison said: “We have a 12-year-old child who is here for stealing a duck. We don’t think this is normal.”

As of October 2017, it was estimated that 55% of prisoners in Madagascar consisted of pre-trial detainees. In other words, there are more inmates who are awaiting trial than those who have been convicted.

Tamara Léger, Madagascar Programme Advisor at Amnesty International, told me that more than half of the country’s detainees are in pre-trial detention – meaning they have not been found guilty yet. This amounts to more than 14,000 people – including children as young as 13 years old, and pregnant women, or women with young babies.

“For the most part, it is the poorest men, women, and children, with the least recourse to legal help, who suffer the most from their imprisonment. While in prison, they and their families face physical violence, threats, loss of income and education, malnutrition, and poor health, as well as the stigma of being accused of a crime without the chance to prove their innocence,” Léger said.

The practice goes against international human rights laws, which state that those awaiting trials or those with ongoing trials are presumed innocent until proven guilty. This means that pre-trial detainees should maintain certain rights such as access to legal aid, and the right to a trial within a reasonable timeframe.  Yet, Madagascan laws allow pre-trial detention to last for periods of up to five years for adults and 33 months for children. In addition, there is hardly any access to legal aid in Madagascar, which means that pre-trial detainees who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer can spend years behind bars without legal support.

“Madagascar’s current judicial policies insist that people accused of a crime are routinely put in prison pending trial. They can be waiting for a trial for years, with little or no information on their cases,” Léger added.

“Although alternatives to detention exist in the law, they are very rarely used by magistrates who prefer resorting to the use of pre-trial detention. The use of unjustified, excessive, and prolonged arbitrary pre-trial detention in Madagascar has led to a wide array of human rights violations. The conditions in which pre-trial detainees are held in amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

“In addition, there seems to be a widespread practice of arbitrary arrests and detention of individuals based on insufficient evidence or on weak grounds. For instance, Amnesty International received many testimonies of pre-trial detainees saying the police resorted to violence to obtain confessions, in order to close their case quickly.”

Those who are eventually released, often face long-term issues. Apart from the psychological implications, they may suddenly find themselves in positions where they no longer have jobs – sinking them into greater impoverishment and destitution.

In recent times, there has been mounting pressure for Madagascar to tackle their pre-trial detention system. Last month, authorities in Madagascar announced that they would introduce more nutritious and varied diets for detainees – whose food was primarily dry cassava.

“We are still waiting to see the government prioritise much-needed support to the criminal justice system, and immediate steps to ensure that the various organs of justice effectively work to make pre-trial detention an exception. Although criminal justice reforms take time, Amnesty International has identified a number of steps that the authorities could implement immediately, which would have an immediate impact on the situation: these include, for example, separating all minors from adults, and all pre-trial detainees from sentenced ones, or immediately increasing the use of alternatives to detention, particularly in the cases of children who are accused of minor, non-violent offences such as theft of chicken,” Léger concluded.