By Clair MacDougall
ACCRA (Reuters) - Thousands of mentally ill people in Ghana are abused in healing camps and hospitals, sometimes chained up and starved in a bid to cleanse them of 'demons', a Western human rights group said.
Some of the worst abuses happen in spiritual healing centers, many funded by Christian organizations and run by self-proclaimed prophets, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
"In some of the spiritual healing centers, popularly known as prayer camps, they are often chained to trees, frequently in the baking sun, and forced to fast for weeks as part of a 'healing process,' while being denied access to medications," HRW said.
In its report titled "Like a Death Sentence," HRW also documented problems in Ghana's three public psychiatric hospitals including overcrowding, a lack of supplies and staff, involuntary admissions and treatments, beatings by nurses, and the use of electric shock therapy.
"Once you have a mental illness you are considered subhuman," Doris Appiah, a woman suffering from bipolar Disorder who spent five years in a prayer camp, said at the launch of the report in Ghana's capital Accra.
HRW, which interviewed more than 170 people with mental disabilities, called on the Ghanaian government to improve conditions in hospitals, ensure individuals are not held against their will, and enforce existing laws on assault.
As in many African countries, mental illness and disability are sometimes understood through the prism of traditional beliefs and superstitions.
Some 650,000 people in Ghana are believed to have severe mental disabilities, HRW said. Government funding for mental health in Ghana is scarce.
Joseph Whittal the deputy commissioner of Ghana's government Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, said the report underlined the urgency of the issue.
"It is embarrassing for a country like ours, that prides itself on our democratic credentials and promotion of human rights and protection, that we have the vulnerable falling into the cracks," said Whittal.
"We need a regulatory body for the prayer camps that will ensure freedom of religion and religious practice, but also ensure that the rights of those in the camps are protected," he told Reuters.
Ghana's chief psychiatrist and director of the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, Akwesi Osei, said that he would respond to the allegations next week by issuing his own report. ($1 = 507.1180 CFA francs)
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)