Rights activists on Thursday decried overcrowding and outmoded conditions in Senegal's jails after two inmates lost their lives in the main prison in the capital Dakar.
The detainees died on Tuesday inside the Rebeuss facility in the city centre after a cell ventilator spat out "sparks" that caused panic among prisoners, the justice ministry said in a statement.
"Prompt intervention by prison warders did not make it possible to save all the occupants because two inert bodies were found lying on the floor," the statement said, without noting how many detainees were held in the cell.
Three human rights groups issued a joint statement calling for an "independent and impartial investigation", adding that they had "ceaselessly denounced the dilapidation of this prison".
"It's time that the government took urgent measures to solve the problem of prison overpopulation," said the text released by Amnesty Senegal, the Senegalese League of Human Rights and the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defence of Human Rights (RADDHO).
They urged the authorities to build a new prison in Dakar to replace the Rebeuss jail, which dates back to the French colonial era before 1960 -- like other penal institutions in the West African country.
Work began in January 2015 to build a new prison at Sebikotane, near Dakar, which is still in construction.
The prison administration said that an inquiry has begun into the "unfortunate accident" in the cell, which occurred at about 11:00 pm.
"Pending the autopsy results, these deaths could have been caused either by electrocution or by a stampede," the justice ministry said.
The government has previously said it wants to broaden the use of alternatives to prison in sentencing some offenders.
Modifications and updates to the penal code and a separate code of penal procedure are in hand to give alternative sentences to delinquents who are sent down for six months or less.