Malaysia rights panel disturbed over more than 600 deaths in prisons and detention centers

By A. Ananthalakshmi

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's national human rights panel on Tuesday said it was disturbed by more than 600 deaths at immigration detention centers and prisons over the last two years, and called for immediate reform.

In its 2016 annual report, the panel, known by its Malay acronym, Suhakam, said there were more than 100 deaths in immigration detention centers and 521 deaths in prisons in 2015 and 2016. Twelve people died in police lock-ups in 2015.

Last week, citing documents from Suhakam, Reuters reported that 118 foreigners, including undocumented workers, refugees and asylum seekers, had died at detention centers in the last two years. More than half the dead were from Myanmar.

Suhakam said deaths mostly stemmed from diseases in all prisons and detention centers, where the government should look to improve conditions and healthcare.

"There is little interest in the human rights of detainees," said Chairman Razali Ismail. "This attitude is reflected in government budgetary priorities and the resources made available for the running and upkeep of all places of detention."

Particularly in immigration detention centers, people spent long periods unable to move freely or sleep comfortably in overcrowded cells, he said, where conditions sometimes deteriorated to become "inhumane".

The government did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Suhakam's report, published on Tuesday.

Former detainees, government agencies and rights groups have told Reuters of grim living conditions in detention camps that are overcrowded and unhygienic.

Some said they received insufficient food, water or healthcare, and many developed skin and lung infections, or contagious diseases. All those interviewed also alleged they were beaten by camp guards or saw others being beaten.

Suhakam documents reviewed by Reuters showed detainees died from lung infections, heart-related conditions and the bacterial disease leptospirosis. No cause was attributed for 50 deaths.

Last week, deputy home minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed told Reuters his ministry had hit a budget brick wall in efforts to improve conditions in immigration detention centers.

Malaysia's 13 detention centers had a total of 86,795 detainees during various periods in 2016, the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission says.

"UNFIT AND UNSAFE"

Two of the detention centers Suhakam visited last year were in dilapidated condition, the agency said in its report.

Three blocks of a detention center in southern Johor state, and two blocks on northern Penang island were held "unfit and unsafe for occupation," by the Public Works Department, it added.

The rights agency said the immigration department last week informed it of "major reforms," such as better healthcare and repair of dilapidated structures.

Southeast Asia-based migrant and refugee protection group Fortify Rights urged a criminal investigation into the deaths.

"Malaysian authorities could begin tackling this by ending arbitrary and indefinite detention of migrants, including refugees and survivors of trafficking," Executive Director Amy Smith said in a statement.

(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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