By Nadine Dahan
As the global pandemic of COVID-19 spreads rapidly across the world, it has become clear that vulnerable people such as those in prison or detention are at a greater risk of contracting the virus. Earlier this month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, called for governments to take measures to reduce overcrowding in prisons to prevent “catastrophic” COVID-19 infection rates.
This is of particular concern in those parts of the world that remain mired in conflict, such as Yemen, Libya, Egypt and Syria. A number of countries have already taken measures to mitigate the risks associated with an outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons, measures including the release of prisoners convicted of minor crimes, and the release of a number of prisoners in at-risk groups.
In Yemen, over half of the country’s health facilities are closed or not fully functioning, having endured more than five years of conflict between Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi armed groups. The country has been forced to face outbreaks of major and disastrous diseases, including cholera, measles and diphtheria. An outbreak of COVID-19, which Yemen seems to have avoided so far, but will inevitably come, poses an imminent threat to the county, and its vulnerable population.
Prisoners, regardless of loyalty, have faced torture, sexual violence and humiliation. An investigation by the Associated Press in 2018 found that hundreds of Yemeni men had been swept into a network of prisons - many overseen by the UAE - on ‘suspicion’ of having affiliation to terrorist groups. These men have not faced trial or been charged with any offence. These prisoners are at acute risk, particularly as the conflict continues and informal prisons continue to be maintained where inmate are held in close proximity to one another, without access to medical care, and without any form of accountability.
In Libya, the situation is particularly unclear and therefore the concern is exacerbated. Prisons in the country are in many cases informal detention centres with no oversight and with widespread torture and arbitrary detentions endemic. As fighting continues and all sides continue to take hostages and prisoners, the situation in which many detainees are held is unknown. On 6 April one of the capital’s essential medical facilities, and one of the potential COVID-19 facilities - Al Khadra General Hospital - was shelled. As of March, a total of 27 health facilities in the country have sustained damage due to the fighting, with 14 forced to close according to the UN. This general lack of medical capabilities coupled with ongoing and escalating violent clashes is a recipe for disaster.
In Egypt, there are over 114,000 inmates in overcrowded prisons who are at imminent risk from COVID-19, with conditions ripe for its rapid spread. Egypt’s prisons are often unsanitary and overcrowded, and detainees are routinely denied access to medical attention. These already difficult and inhumane conditions will only be exacerbated by a COVID-19 outbreak, and detainees - many of whom are detained arbitrarily due to their political or human rights work - will be extremely vulnerable. Egypt is silencing those activists calling for the release of political prisoners, with a recent wave of arrests, accusing protestors of spreading false news. Officials have orchestrated a crackdown on reporting on the virus at a time where transparency and access to accurate information is key for maintaining public health, its justification being that journalists are spreading panic.
In Syria, overcrowding in official and makeshift prisons is rampant, with deaths in government run prisons as a result of torture and the denial of medical care are already being on an unfathomable scale. Syrian prisons are home to a number of vulnerable groups, including women, children and the elderly, as well as many people with underlying health issues. An outbreak of COVID-19 in such circumstances would be devastating.
Violent conflict continues unabated in three of these countries, even as other countries have seen a lull in hostilities in attempts to slow the spread of the virus. In Yemen, Libya and Syria, significant numbers are imprisoned solely on the basis of their political opinions or opposition to the violence. Despite calls from the UN, prisoners have not been released - particularly political detainees whose only crime is an opposing political view, and who pose no danger to the public - and have not ensured that the necessary physical distancing is in place in detention facilities or prisons.
Special attention must be paid to authoritarian governments in the MENA region and worldwide that may use the pandemic to expand already excessive powers and further limit civil liberties. This could include greater policing powers, regulating freedom of assembly, suppressing media freedoms, and detaining critics, passing or extending emergency legislation or suspending the operation of judicial institutions.
Of particular concern is the implementation of such measures as short term or emergency measures and their subsequent normalisation in the long term after the pandemic is over.