UN attacks Britain's rights record

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT CLAIMS to champion human rights were called into question yesterday by a United Nations committee that issued a critical report on the way Britain treats its prisoners and refugees.

The UN Committee Against Torture raised its concern over the growing number of people who are dying in police and prison custody and the lack of investigation into allegations that they may have been unlawfully killed.

Last year, 71 people died in prison because of self-inflicted injury or homicide and 54 died in police custody.

The UN report also calls on Britain to end the use of detention centres in Northern Ireland and abandon the use of plastic bullets in riot control. The committee also complains that refugees arriving in Britain have been placed in prison.

It also recommends that if General Augusto Pinochet, the former leader of Chile, is not extradited to Spain his case should be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible criminal proceedings.

Amnesty International said last night: "This recommendation is in line with our repeated appeals to the United Kingdom government to respect the process of international law by trying or extraditing all people suspected of crimes against humanity." But the UN committee's greatest concern is over deaths in custody.

Its report identifies "the apparent failure of the State party (the UK) to provide an effective investigative mechanism to deal with allegations of police and prison authorities' abuse".

Helen Shaw, co-director of Inquest, which campaigns to prevent deaths in custody, said: "This report vindicates the arguments that we have been making about the failure of the inquest system and the whole criminal justice process to adequately address the abuses of power by police or prison officers who have been involved in incidents which have led to deaths."

She added: "The report backs our view that far too much secrecy surrounds these investigations and that even where we have had an inquest, the full facts are not always established and the state does not disclose all the information that has been gathered."

The Geneva-based committee reached its findings after considering evidence from British government officials and British civil rights groups.

As a signatory to the 1988 UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, Britain is required to subject itself to a periodic investigation by the committee. The last report in 1995 contained concerns over the actions of the British authorities in Northern

The latest report praises Britain for "the peace process in Northern Ireland, pursuant to the Good Friday Agreement" but says there can be no justification for the continuation of a state of emergency in the province.

Paul Mageean, legal officer for the Belfast-based Committee on the Administration of Justice, said the report was a "major contribution" to the peace process.

He said there had been 14 deaths and thousands of injuries from the use of plastic bullets during the Troubles. "We think that they are a lethal weapon and are not suitable for use in any situation, specifically crowd control."

Britain drew praise from the committee for its enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. The committee also commended the removal of corporal punishment as a penalty in several British dependent territories.

Britain will not be responding to the criticisms until it goes before the committee again in 2001.

Victims of the Heavy Hand of the Law

DENNIS STEVENS died in Dartmoor prison after being handcuffed in a leather body-belt for 24 hours in 1995.

Stevens, 29, was restrained by prison officers after punching one of them and was found dead in his cell the following morning. An inquest jury decided last year that his death was an accident.

GARY LAWLOR went into a coma after being hit in the back of the head by a plastic bullet during protests linked to the Orange Order march in Drumcree last year.

The 14-year-old Roman Catholic was shot in Belfast and is suffering long- term behavioural difficulties because of his head injury.

IBRAHIMA SEY died at Ilford police station, east London, in 1996, after being sprayed with CS despite being surrounded by officers and having his hands chained.

Sey, 29, who had two children and was mentally ill, was arrested after his wife called police. An inquest recorded a verdict of unlawful killing.