UN decries Latin America prison conditions
* U.N. body urges Honduran authorities to give information
* Decries wave of prison violence across Latin America
* Region's jails marked by overcrowding, poor conditions
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The United Nations called on Friday for an independent investigation into a prison fire that killed hundreds in Honduras, and denounced what it said was a wave of prison violence in Latin America fueled by poor conditions and overcrowding.
Survivors of the fire that killed more than 350 inmates in Comayagua prison on Tuesday night accused guards of leaving prisoners to die inside their cells and shooting at others who tried to escape the flames.
The U.N. human rights office "fully supports the establishment of a thorough independent investigation into the cases of the fire and into whether the conditions at the prison contributed to the enormous loss of life", Rupert Colville, spokesman of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told a briefing.
Colville noted that the prison was designed to house 250 detainees but was holding more than 800 at the time of the blaze.
He called on Honduran authorities to release information to the victims' families "without any further delay".
It was the third prison fire in Honduras causing a high number of fatalities in the past decade, including 107 detainees who died in San Pedro Sula in 2004, he said.
"WAVE OF VIOLENCE"
But problems are widespread in the vast region, where prisons often hold from 30 percent to 100 percent more prisoners than they were built for, he said. U.N. human rights bodies and investigators have repeatedly criticised conditions there.
Colville said a "wave of violence" in Latin American prisons had caused deaths in recent weeks in countries including Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile. He said five young inmates had lost their lives and many others were injured during a fire in a juvenile detention centre in Panama last year.
"These events reflect an alarming pattern of prison violence in the region, which is a direct consequence of, or aggravated by, a range of endemic problems including chronic prison overcrowding, the lack of access to basic services such as adequate floor space, potable water, food, health care, and lack of basic sanitary and hygienic standards," Colville said.
He said the conditions are made worse "by judicial delays and excessive resort to pre-trial detention".
In Honduras, most of the inmates had not been convicted of a crime before the huge blaze tore through their cells.
In Brazil, a video of a handcuffed female prisoner who had just given birth has brought renewed focus on the use of handcuffs during birth and post-partum in Sao Paolo, allegations denied by authorities, according to Colville. The woman has been held in preventive detention on shoplifting charges.
In Chile earlier this month an outbreak of a form of haemorrhagic fever spread by rats killed two inmates and sickened several others in El Manzano prison, he said. Last month, a prison riot in Talagante prison near Santiago was sparked by a guard shooting dead a detainee trying to escape.
Prisoner-on-prisoner violence have led to deaths in Argentina, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela in the past few months, Colville said. (Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)
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