Zimbabwe police holding cells 'uninhabitable'

Zimbabwean riot police patrol outside Harare Magistrate's Court on March 19, 2013 (AFP Photo/Alexander Joe) (AFP/File)

Harare (AFP) - Zimbabwean lawyers on Wednesday decried reported assaults and the death of suspects in police custody, as well as conditions in holding cells they called unfit for human habitation.

"There have been disturbing reports of deaths in police custody and some of our members have reported that some of their clients have been assaulted or coerced to make confessions," Lloyd Mhishi, president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, told a parliamentary committee on human rights.

"We are talking of people who have been arrested and have not yet been convicted but they are kept in filthy and ill-equipped cells," he said.

"Some are clearly uninhabitable."

Human rights organisations have denounced prison conditions in Zimbabwe, saying suspects are often held in overcrowded cells without functioning bathroom facilities, and issued threadbare and often lice-infested blankets.

Food is usually scarce, they say, due to general shortages arising from the economic crisis roiling the southern African nation.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said that last year alone, more than 100 prisoners starved to death in the country's jails.

Mhishi noted that in some cases suspects are denied access to legal counsel, or lawyers are arrested while trying to obtain access to their clients.

"Sometimes lawyers are prevented from seeing their clients," he said.

Last year prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was arrested and detained when she went to see her clients during a police raid on the offices of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.