Council of Europe commission comments of certificates issued by psychiatrists to illegal immigrants - 21/8/2005

link to article in The Independent

Mount Carmel doctors instructed not to issue certificates for immigrants
by Raphael Vassallo

Medical doctors at Mount Carmel Psychiatric Hospital were instructed by a senior official from the Ministry of Health not to issue certificates which may be interpreted as critical of the government’s detention policy.

This was revealed in a report drawn up by the Council of Europe’s Committee For the Prevention of Torture (CPT) following its scheduled visit to Malta’s closed detention centres in January 2003. The report was published, complete with government’s response, earlier this week. The CPT report also noted that, if verified, these allegations “would constitute an interference with the independence of the doctors concerned.”

Paragraph 57 of the report, which deals specifically with mental health issues, states: “The CPT’s delegation obtained copies of certificates issued by psychiatrists at Mount Carmel Psychiatric Hospital which illustrated that indeterminate and indefinite detention was conducive to the development of reactive disorders...”

The report cites three separate certificates which recommended alternative solutions to detention. In one case, the certificate indicated that the patient, a foreign national detained at one of Malta’s immigration centres, “did not suffer from a specific mental illness, but from a ‘reactional anxiety to this detention...’.” Another certificate claimed that the patient was suffering mentally from the prolonged detention and the long delays in any decision being taken as regards his future. "The situation of indeterminate detention is leading to a serious mental suffering not only of Mr..., but also other detainees. I strongly recommend that an alternative to detention is found...”

Yet another certificate confirmed that another detainee, admitted to Mount Carmel from one of the detention centres, should not be returned to detention as he “could become more suicidal and successfully commit suicide in an unprotected environment...”

It is not known whether these certificates had been issued before or after the death of Algerian national Abdul Hakim Gharnout (also cited in the CPT report), who successfully committed suicide by hanging on 2 November 2003 at the police lock-up in Floriana. Gharnout had been sent back into detention from Mt Carmel the day before he died.

The CPT report goes on to state that the delegation “was moreover informed that medical doctors at Mt Carmel Psychiatric Hospital had been instructed – apparently by a senior official from the Ministry of Health – not to issue any such certificate in future.” The paragraph concludes with the sentence (emphasised in bold): “The CPT would like to receive the comments of the Maltese authorities on the issues raised in this paragraph.”

The government’s official response was published together with the CPT report. Regarding paragraph 57, the response indicates that government generally agrees detention should “definitely not be of an indefinite and prolonged nature”, and outlined various improvements which were in the process of being made. Indeterminate detention is now a thing of the past, after the introduction of a maximum detention period of 18 months. However, the government’s response makes no reference whatsoever to the above allegations that a senior official from the Health Ministry interfered directly with the independence of the doctors concerned. To date, there has been no denial by the ministry.

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