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The different ways countries dealt with prisoners and detainees amid Corona pandemic

In light of the uncontrollable spreading of CoVid-19, countries dealt differently with their prisoners and detainees. While some have turned a deaf ear, even with all the pleadings and hashtags: #Free_The_Prisoners #Free_The_Detainees. Others have had to let tens of thousands of prisoners go. A third approach was to continue the arrests, as if this virus doesn’t concern those countries. While the prisoners themselves, in other countries, took matters in their hands, causing some deaths and injuries.

Egypt has a specific stance on this matter, for a number of reasons. Most notably the tens of thousands of people that are still in prison for the 7th consecutive year, for political reasons. This came after the 2013, July 3rd coup. Before they were joined in the last few years, due to the ever growing protests, by members of the secular opposition, some activists from the coup camp. And even people close to Sisi himself, by way of pretrial detention.

Egypt: The disregarding continues

In a country, like Egypt, where basic rights are stifled. Middle East Eye’s researcher Amro Magdy believes there are many human rights repercussions  to any public health crisis.

And he believes one of the most pressing matters is the most vulnerable groups, ie those in overcrowded closed prisons.

Adding: Egypt’s prisons are notorious for being overcrowded, dirty and falling short in terms of health and hygiene standards. In November 2019, two UN experts said: “The grim detention conditions in Egypt may put the health and lives of thousands of prisoners at sever risk.”. This was just months before the highly contagious CoVid-19 outbreak, which could prove to be devastating.

Magdy noted that among the urgent measures recommended by the Human Right Watch is for governments in affected countries to release the wrongfully detained. Explaining that this could be easily implemented in Egypt; just by starting with the release of thousands of prisoners who weren’t imprisoned for crimes they committed, but simply for peacefully exercising their rights.

Instead, explained Magdy, the egyptian government halted, starting March 10th, all prison visits by families and lawyers alike,  for 10 days all over the country.

Indicating that some families tried to bring their detained relatives soap and disinfectants, but the prison administration refused.

The government deals with these prison issues in extreme secrecy. It has never released figures about the prisoners or the prisons capacity, let alone the more detailed statistics on age, sex, and education. nor did it discuss the number and reasons of deaths in custody, Magdy Adds.

Suppressing the opposition

Amro persists on the fact that the government of President Abd elFattah el-Sisi has fiercely suppressed dissent, in different ways:

  • Arresting tens of thousands of people.
  • Many of them critics, writers, journalists, human rights defenders, bloggers and peaceful protesters.
  • Thousands have been jailed without trial, lost in Egypt’s abusive pretrial detention system.
  • Many are kept in police stations, security directorates and unofficial detention sites, such as security forces training sites.

Quoting a report released by “the National Council for Human Rights” in May 2015, that said “police stations holding cells were 300 percent overcapacity while prisons are at 160 percent overcapacity”. And other previous Human Rights Watch reports show that prison officials have left many prisoners “to die” in recent years. Even though they had treatable illnesses; such as diabetes or heart conditions.

Adding: “If that’s already daily life in Egyptian prisons, then it definitely is not prepared to face a pandemic such as CoVid-19”.

Iran: Setting prisoners free

On the contrary, the Iranian regime took a more forgiving approach towards the prisoners and detainees.

A judiciary spokesman in Iran announced on Tuesday the temporary release of about 85 thousand prisoners. Including political detainees, in response to the CoVid-19 outbreak.

“About 50% of the released prisoners were incarcerated for safety-related criminal offences. And we took precautions in prison to prevent a CoVid-19 outbreak”, said Gholam Hossein Ismaili.

Javid Rahman The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran has asked Tehran to temporarily release all political detainees from the overcrowded disease-ridden jails to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Ismaili didn’t reveal any details about the expected date of return to prison.

Italy: A deadly pervention

In Italy, 6 prisoners were killed in riots that erupted in an Italian prison to protest against the introduction of measures to contain the spread of the Corona virus. Italian prison police said Monday that the prisoners were protesting against the measures to contain the Corona virus in a prison in the north of the country. And they stormed a medical care center.

Human rights defenders have warned that increased tensions over fears of infection with the Coruna virus are severely hitting prisoners. Especially after restrictions on family visits were imposed to prevent the transmission of the infection.

On Monday, the prisoners climbed to the roof of the San Vittore prison in Milan, carrying a paper written in Italian (we demand pardon). Donato Kibbs, the secretary general of the Prison Police Union, accused the government of abandoning the prison system, refusing to provide adequate measures to prevent the virus from spreading among prisoners, and leaving the guards on their own to deal with prisoners who can now only speak to relatives by phone or Skype.

The protesting prisoners announced a list of demands that included allowing their relatives to visit them. And they tried to negotiate this with the prison administration, AKI reported. Families of some prisoners gathered in front of the Bogoreal prison in support of them.

Brazil: A mass attack

A mass escape took place in Brazil, where more than 1000 prisoners broke out of 4 prisons at least.

Hundreds of prisoners fled a day before the local authorities implemented strict measures to counter the outbreak of the Corona virus, including the suspension of their temporary release, the cancellation of Easter holidays, and the tightening of restrictions on visitors, fearing that they could spread the virus.

The Ponte Human Rights News website estimated that up to 1,500 prisoners had fled.

Gaza: releases and home leave

In the Gaza Strip, the Ministry of the Interior and National Security took, on Tuesday, a number of precautions to prevent corona virus by the number of inmates.

Iyad Al-Bazm, a spokesman for the ministry, said in press statements that his ministry had drawn up a plan that includes various aspects. And he explained that these measures were as follows:

  • Granting “home leave” to prisoners and detainees على خلفية الذمم المالية لمدة أسبوع قابلة للتجديد for a week, that could be renewed.
  • Granting home leave for all petty cases owners, that could be extended according to circumstances.
  • Full release of “inmates who have served two-thirds of their time”.
  • Temporarily stopping family visits and replacing them with phone calls.
  • The sterilization of all service centers, police headquarters, and correction and rehabilitation centers, periodically.

Saudi Arabia: Starting arrests

Amid the campaigns to release detainees, and the measures some countries are taking to limit the numbers of detainees. Saudi Arabia announced the detention of 298 government officials. Including army and police officers and judges, on charges that include bribery, the exploitation of influence, and the dispossession of public funds.

Saying that investigators will charge them, as a part of the arrests campaign initiated by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Which started with the apprehension of his uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz and his son. Major General Nayef, and his cousins, Prince Muhammad bin Nawaf and Prince Nawaf bin Nayef, and Saud bin Nayef and their children.

Free the detainees

Online campaigns continue to call for the release of the prisoners and detainees. With the use of hashtags such as #خرجوا_المعتقلين and #خرجوا_السجناء on social media.

The counter campaigns didn’t take long to start. Led by writer Ibrahim Issa who implied that all the prisoners are from the Brotherhood. Which makes them -according to him- far more dangerous on Egypt than Corona Virus.

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