Regional consultations on reducing pre-trial detention in Africa

Friday, August 13, 2021

The APT recently convened a regional consultation with ten African National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) to discuss the key factors driving pre-trial detention across the region and strategies to reduce its use.

The NPMs – from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Rwanda, Togo and Tunisia – gathered online over a two-week period for online forums and discussions. Civil society organisations, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa shared their expertise and experience with the NPMs during a regional webinar.

On average, over 60% of detainees across Africa are held in pre-trial detention. Holding so many people before their trial, many of them for petty or non-violent offences, has deep and significant consequences, which are felt by many.

Overuse of pre-trial detention drives overcrowding, which leads to inhuman conditions for everyone detained. It also has a corrosive effect on the presumption of innocence: when everyone who is accused of a crime is detained, it becomes more likely that the public will assume they are guilty.

Further, when breadwinners are detained awaiting trial – often for years – families and whole communities can fall into poverty.

These consequences are felt most by those already in situations of vulnerability, including those from minority groups and people in situations of poverty. These are the people who are most likely to be detained before trial, often because many cannot afford a lawyer to represent them.

A gap between law and practice: a common reality

NPM participants discussed the definitions of pre-trial detention used in their respective countries, in light of regional and international standards such as the Luanda Guidelines and the Robben Island Guidelines.

The discussions confirmed that while, in most of their countries, the law is clear that pre-trial detention should only be used as an exceptional measure, the reality is very different. Pre-trial detention is used systematically in practice.

Moreover, ad hoc measures, such as pardons and COVID-19 related detainee release schemes, have not had a long-term impact on reducing overcrowding as they do not address the root causes driving new arrivals in detention.

Strategies and ways forward to reduce pre-trial detention

NPM participants identified a range of strategies they can pursue to facilitate more releases and reduce the number of arrivals in detention, including:

  • Advocacy for greater resourcing of the judiciary and legal aid; a practice highlighted by the NPM of Burkina Faso, which has been working at the structural level to improve access to legal aid, in order to assist the many detainees who have no knowledge of the law and how to navigate the system in which they find themselves
  • Education to combat social and cultural drivers contributing to pre-trial detention
  • Working with different groups to develop strategies for change, including with judges and prosecutors who may be unaware of the impact of their decisions; a strategy outlined by the NPMs of Mauritius, Mauritania and Tunisia
  • Improving coordination among actors in the criminal justice system, which many participants identified as a barrier to processing cases
  • Strengthening monitoring methodology among NPMs, with a particular focus on the types of information they can gather, analyse and include in their reports to build greater understanding of the issue.

Following these consultations, the APT will support the NPM of Togo in its work to develop strategies, use its monitoring powers and facilitate dialogue among key actors to reduce pre-trial detention. We will also host further regional discussions on the same topic, including on progress made and challenges relating to the strategies for change identified by NPMs.

Staff members