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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Tuesday rejected a claim by rights group Amnesty International that conditions on a tiny South Pacific island where about 400 Australian-bound asylum seekers are held "amount to torture".
Under Australia's tough immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach the country by boat are sent for processing at a camp in Nauru or to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and are not eligible for resettlement in Australia.
Many asylum seekers on Nauru are being driven to attempt suicide to escape the prison-like conditions they face in indefinite detention, Amnesty alleged in a detailed report.
"I reject that claim totally. It is absolutely false," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio of the torture claim. "The Australian government's commitment is compassionate and strong."
The detention was a "systematic regime of neglect and cruelty," said Amnesty, adding that its findings were based on both desk research and field work in Nauru between July and October.
"The conditions on Nauru — refugees' severe mental anguish, the intentional nature of the system, and the fact that the goal of offshore processing is to intimidate or coerce people to achieve a specific outcome — amounts to torture," it added.
The Nauru government did not respond directly to the Amnesty report but criticized an ABC TV story that made similar allegations and quoted children on Nauru, where refugees are mainly from Iran and Afghanistan.
"It was clear these children were coached," the government said in a statement, calling the ABC report "biased political propaganda and lies", and "an insult to the people of Nauru".
Almost 60 people, or about 15 percent of the 410 men, women and children on the island, reported they had either attempted suicide or had thoughts about harming themselves, Amnesty said.
Despite receiving refugee status, they continue to be confined to poor accommodation with little access to medical care, it said, adding that children, who number just over a tenth of the detainees, suffered disproportionately.
"I met children as young as nine who had already tried to kill themselves and were talking openly about ending their lives," said Anna Neistat, an Amnesty official.
Amnesty's report, titled "Island of Despair", joins a chorus of criticism by human rights groups of Australia's immigration policy, and comes just weeks after the United Nations said Nauru was failing to protect children.
On Tuesday, the United Nations issued fresh criticism of Australia's human rights record.
Australia's policy of jail terms of up to two years for detention center workers who reveal details of the operation curtails free speech, said Michel Forst, the UN independent observer for human rights defenders.
Turnbull's government has been trying to organize resettlement of the asylum seekers in other countries, but has so far struck a deal only with Cambodia that has proved unpopular with refugees.
Asked if he was in talks with the United States to take some of the detainees, Turnbull declined to comment but stressed they would not be allowed to enter Australia.
Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Michael Perry