Jailing of asylum seekers criticised: Prison visitors join protest against treatment of suicidal torture victims

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A PRISON'S board of visitors yesterday severely criticised the Government's policy of locking up asylum seekers - many of whom they say are suicidal - in Victorian jails, as the wave of protests and hunger strikes in detention centres continued.

A growing number of civil rights organisations have been attacking the immigration system whereby people seeking asylum can spend up to a year incarcerated while their cases are considered. Amnesty International yesterday said human rights were being violated.

Almost 170 people are on hunger strike in nine detention centres and jails as the demonstrations reach their 12th day - a decline from a peak of more than 200. About 700 people are being kept in detention. At least one person refusing food has been taken to hospital and others are under medical supervision.

Annie Anderson, chairman of the board of visitors for Pentonville prison in north London, where about 60 asylum seekers are held, said yesterday the prison, built in 1842, was 'totally inappropriate' for keeping detainees.

She said: 'To send someone seeking political asylum to Pentonville when they may well be feeling suicidal is utterly wrong. Being locked up in a cell in an inner-city Victorian prison is not the answer.

'Some of the detainees are quite unwell, partly because of the tremendous stress caused by the long delays and uncertainty in waiting to see if they can stay in the country.'

Mrs Anderson added that the largest detention centre, Campsfield House, near Oxford, was also unsuitable because it lacked a hospital wing.

The board's annual report said: 'They (the detainees) put huge demands on the time and emotions of staff and they frequently display suicidal tendencies.'

One of the people claiming asylum at Pentonville has been waiting for about a year for his case to be processed despite having clear evidence that he had been tortured, according to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

Doctors from the charity examined the man, a 29-year-old from Zaire who has recently been on hunger strike at the jail, about a week ago. They found scars all over his body, which the organisation said were 'consistent with his evidence' that he had been beaten with a rubber whip wrapped with wire while in Zaire. The man, who says he was a member of the opposition party in Zaire, now suffers from severe headaches, nightmares and flashbacks.

Mary Salinsky, from the foundation, said: 'He feels completely hopeless and is in such despair he sometimes wonders whether it would be better to be dead.'

Amnesty International yesterday claimed that at least 20 detainees had been transferred from Campsfield House to other centres or prisons, a move that undermined their legal representation and violated their rights. The Home Office said only nine detainees had been transferred because of 'disruptive behaviour'.

The largest number of hunger strikers are still at Campsfield, where 82 are refusing to eat.