By Colin Packham and Jane Wardell
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Tuesday rejected claims by rights group Amnesty International that conditions on a tiny Pacific Island where some 400 asylum seekers are being held "amount to torture."
In a detailed report titled Island of Despair, Amnesty alleged that many of the asylum seekers on Nauru are being driven to attempt suicide to escape the prison-like conditions they face in indefinite detention.
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.
"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."
Amnesty, which said its findings were based on both desk research and field work in Nauru between July and October, said the detention was a "systematic regime of neglect and cruelty."
"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," the report said.
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. Aid agencies say those held on Nauru are mainly from Iran and Afghanistan.
Despite receiving refugee status, they continue to be confined to poor accommodation with little access to medical care, Amnesty said, adding that children, who make up little more than a tenth of the number of detainees, suffer 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 Keistat, an Amnesty official.
Amnesty 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. A Guardian report said that more than 2,000 incidents, including sexual abuse, assault and attempted self-harm, were reported in about two years, more than half involving children.
Turnbull's government has been trying to organize resettlement of the asylum seekers in other countries, but has so far only struck a deal with Cambodia that has proved unpopular with refugees.
Asked if he was in negotiations with the United States to take some of the detainees, Turnbull declined to comment but stressed that they would not be allowed to enter Australia.
"If you seek to come to Australia with a people smuggler or you've sought to come to Australia with a people smuggler, you will not settle in Australia," he said.
Australia is also facing pressure over a second detention center in Papua New Guinea after that country's Supreme Court in April ordered its closure. The 823 men held on Manus Island have been given limited freedom, but they remain detained.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Sandra Maler)