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Withholding medical care from detainees is widespread, says UN

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 14 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1626
  1. John Zarocostas
  1. 1Geneva

Denying medical treatment to detainees, especially victims of torture and prisoners with serious illnesses, can constitute cruel and inhumane treatment, says a United Nations independent expert on torture.

A report presented to the UN’s Human Rights Council documents individual cases of detainees who weren’t given urgent medical care in many countries, including China, Italy, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Burma (Myanmar), Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine. Some of the detainees died in custody, it says.

Juan Méndez, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, said that he is also “deeply concerned” by the large number of places of detention that don’t meet minimum international standards, including conditions relating to food, healthcare, minimum space, and hygiene.

He told reporters, “I think in all circumstances we need to hold governments responsible for the healthcare of any inmate that they hold in all conditions of detention.”

Mr Méndez said he was aware that some states don’t have the facilities to provide the necessary care and that in those circumstances provision should be made to treat people in regular hospitals and medical facilities.

Mr Méndez, an Argentinean professor of international law, said that he and other independent experts have also started a probe into allegations of serious violations of human rights, including torture and extrajudicial killings of patients, by security forces of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The report notes that in October 2008 authorities in Jidong Prison in Tangshan, China, refused to release a detainee for medical parole on the grounds that his situation was not serious enough. Wei Danquan, aged 42, had become very pale and weak. However, in May 2010 the doctor in charge of the prison told relatives that he had developed type III tuberculosis in the upper lobe of his lung, says the report.

Another detainee, Ko Mya Aye, being held in Taungyi Prison in Burma, is being denied access to proper medical treatment for angina.

Similarly, Nacer Naif Al Hajiri, a Kuwaiti national detained at the Saudi Arabian intelligence services detention centre in Dammam and who has diabetes, arterial hypertension, and a brain tumour, was taken to a hospital in February 2010 and examined by a doctor who advised immediate medical intervention. But despite his worsening physical condition prison officials “refused the medical advice” and he was returned to his cell, the report says.

Denial of access to adequate medical care “is a serious problem” in many places of detention, said Manfred Nowak, professor of international human rights protection at the University of Vienna and a former UN special rapporteur on torture.

The report also says that in penal colony No 88 in Orekhovskaya, Ukraine, mortality among prisoners is high because of lack of access to medical care. Only in the event of exceptionally severe deterioration in health, it says, are prisoners taken away from the colony.

Karim Lahidji, president of the Iranian League for Human Rights, told the BMJ that at least 10 political prisoners in Iran with chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancers, have been denied access to medical care.

Professor Méndez told the UN Human Rights Council that the brutal nature of torture requires that all parties work to ensure its eradication. “There can be no exception,” he said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1626


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