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Zimbabwe Releases Inmates to Relieve Prison Overcrowding - 2003-01-02

Zimbabwe has released more than 10 percent of its prison population in a post-Christmas amnesty, following repeated complaints from human rights groups and the justice ministry about severe overcrowding in the country's jails.

Frankie Meki, spokesman for Zimbabwe's prisons department, said Thursday that 3,600 prisoners are being released from overcrowded jails around the country.

He said eight categories of prisoners benefited from the amnesty, particularly women who were breastfeeding and those who had been jailed for infanticide and abortion.

In addition, all prisoners over the age of 60 have been released, as well as those who are disabled or terminally ill and those serving sentences of less than a year.

According to human rights groups, most of the terminally ill prisoners who have been released are suffering from HIV-AIDS.

The prisons department said the amnesty did not apply to prisoners sentenced to death.

Mr. Meki said Zimbabwe has the prison capacity to hold 16,000 inmates, but in the last year the prison population had soared to more than 24,000.

Prisoners released from jails in the last few months have complained that they were not given enough food and the cells were filthy.

Prisoners say a chronic water shortage, at the maximum-security prison outside Harare, has made conditions dangerously unhealthy.

Nearly all Zimbabwe's prisons were built during the colonial era, and few have been upgraded since independence in 1980.

Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa pledged last year to reduce prison overcrowding following widespread complaints about conditions in jail.