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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 15:35 GMT
Imprisoned without conviction
As part of the BBC News website's series about prisons in Latin America, Martin Murphy reports on the thousands of prisoners who are still waiting to be convicted in Argentina.


Earlier this year a fire during a prison uprising killed 33 inmates near the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.

It was not only the high death toll that came as a shock to many Argentines, but also the fact that most of the dead had not yet been convicted, although most of them were on trial.

Margarita Meira, who spent 14 months in jail and never went on trial
Margarita Meira spent 14 months in jail and never went on trial
A report later revealed that 90% of the prison's inmates were in the same situation.

Under Argentina's constitution, people are innocent until proven guilty. However, 62% of the 62,500 men and women locked up in the country's prisons have yet to be convicted, official figures show.

This is a problem not only affecting Argentina - other Latin American nations face similar difficulties.

But the number of Argentine inmates without jail sentences is still comparatively high.

'Contradictory'

The situation in the Buenos Aires province, where detention centres are most crowded, has raised concern among human rights groups. About 75% of inmates there have not been sentenced.

How could a judge decide that someone is trying to run away or interfere when his or her culpability has not been established in the first place?
Damian Gosiker
criminal lawyer
"It is not a new problem. For years judges have been ordering preventive prison for alleged offenders, which amounts to an anticipated jail sentence," says Damian Gosiker, a criminal lawyer.

He explains that preventive prison is designed to avoid suspects escaping while on trial and also interfering with the police investigation.

"These principles seem contradictory," Mr Gosiker says.

"How could a judge decide that someone is trying to run away or interfere when his or her culpability has not been established in the first place?"

There are no official figures about the fate of inmates without sentence. But some estimates suggest that 30% of them are cleared once their cases are tried.

Those who are cleared do not receive any compensation from the state - even if they have spent several years in jail.

Increase

As in the rest of Latin America, prisons in Argentina are overcrowded, and living conditions behind bars are far from adequate.

Prison uprising in Argentina
A recent uprising left 33 dead
Margarita Meira spent 14 months in the Ezeiza jail near Buenos Aires although she never went on trial.

She claims that human rights violations of all kinds are perpetrated in cells. "I have seen 18-year-old girls being beaten and sexually abused," she told the BBC.

The government report says that the prison population in Argentina has increased by 200% in the last seven years.

For every 100,000 people, there are currently 84 inmates.

But in Buenos Aires province, statistics show there are 200 prisoners for every 100,000 residents.

Only Chile as a whole has a higher proportion of inmates in Latin America: 240 for every 100,000.


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