UN anti-torture panel grills France on prisons, rights

27th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

France faced grilling by UN anti-torture experts on Tuesday over its handling of overcrowding and suicide in its jails, and the rights of asylum seekers, minors in detention, and terror suspects.

Officials from the UN Committee against Torture raised concerns about jail overcrowding, in particular in France's overseas territories where occupancy can reach 230 percent, as well its high prison suicide rates.

Suspects in cases of terrorism, drugs or organised crime can be held for 72 hours without the right to see a lawyer or doctor, or contact relatives, the panel noted with concern.

Terrorism suspects are also exempt from new laws providing for video recordings of interrogations, which the rapporteurs said "created serious issues of equality before the law."

One committee member suggested President Nicolas Sarkozy's government had a knee-kerk approach to criminal law -- legislating in tune with newspaper headlines -- but questioned its will to truly reform the judicial machinery.

The panel also raised concerns about French police's increasing use of Taser stun-guns, as well as their treatment of minors in detention, who it said were sometimes threatened into signing statements.

One expert questioned the French delegation about the chances given to failed asylum seekers to appeal.

Finally, committee chair Claudio Grossman told the meeting French law did not mirror the definition of torture in the United Nations's Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

He also attacked as "not acceptable" the existence of a 10-year statute of limitations for acts of torture under French law.

Jean-Baptiste Mattei, France's permanent representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva, and the 15 other members of the French delegation are to present a reponse to the panel on Wednesday.

Mattei said France was fully aware of the difficulties facing its prison facilities.

A 2009 penitentiary law was passed to promote alternative sentences to prison in a bid to fight crowding, and has produced results even before it was officially published, he said.

Between 2008 and 2009, more than one fifth of convicts received alternative sentences, which in more than 30 percent of cases meant being placed under electronic surveillance, Mattei said.

Mattei highlighted that with nearly 48,000 applications in 2009, France received the highest number of asylum requests in Europe and the third among industrialised countries after the United States and Canada.

In 2009, he said, more than 10,000 persons obtained international protection in France, with nearly 30 percent of asylum-seekers granted their requests.

© 2010 AFP

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