NEW YORK – As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) urges the immediate release of prisoners of conscience in countries around the world ruled by authoritarian regimes, including Venezuela, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain.
“Innocent individuals who are in jail solely for criticizing their governments, including pro-democracy activists and independent journalists, are now effectively facing death sentences as they are kept in overcrowded jails,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF. “Prison populations are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, as self-isolation is impossible and robust medical treatment for prisoners is unlikely.”
Venezuela suffers from the worst prison conditions in the Western hemisphere. Venezuelan government prisons are unsanitary and characterized by overcrowding and poor infrastructure which have contributed to the spread of illnesses among other dangerous conditions. With the outbreak of COVID-19, there have been calls for the release of political prisoners in Venezuela.
In Egypt, a small group of prominent intellectuals and activists held a demonstration in Cairo on March 18 demanding the release of prisoners – as well as their family members held in pre-trial detention – amid rising fears of a coronavirus outbreak in its prisons. The regime is notorious for its unlawful use of the pre-trial detention system, in which “terrorism” charges are brought forward against activists in retaliation for their work. The Egyptian demonstrators were taken into custody, but were released on bail the following day. Upon further calls from rights groups to free prisoners amid the pandemic,15 opposition figures were released on March 19 while tens of thousands remain at risk in prison.
Some authoritarian regimes have taken actions toward releasing and pardoning prisoners. However, these measures have often excluded prisoners of conscience, including human rights activists and political opposition figures.
On March 20, the Turkish government announced an early parole draft law to parliament that conspicuously excludes those who have been imprisoned for politically-motivated charges. The move has been denounced by human rights organizations as discriminatory on the basis of political opinion, and at least seven journalists have been arrested after reporting on new COVID-19 cases, and were charged with spreading panic.
In Syria, approximately 130,000 people are being held in prisons characterized by overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, rampant abuse, and lack of access to healthcare. While some prisoners did receive amnesty, it was unclear whether it was due to the coronavirus outbreak, and did not apply to any political prisoners.
Iran has temporarily released 85,000 prisoners on furlough, and an additional 10,000 prisoners were pardoned for the Iranian new year. Some of those released included political prisoners, though many others remain incarcerated, such as prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who began a hunger strike in protest of the prison conditions during the pandemic.
In Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a royal pardon for 901 Bahraini prisoners “for humanitarian reasons, in the backdrop of current circumstances,” including that of at least 300 political prisoners. However, prominent activists, including opposition leader Nabeel Rajab, remain imprisoned amid the inevitable spread of the COVID-19 in Bahrain’s prisons that fail to meet basic standards of hygiene and cleanliness.
“States must respect established international law during a health crisis to ensure the health and safety of those incarcerated. Unhygienic and overcrowded prison conditions may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” said HRF senior legal associate Roberto González.
HRF’s Impact Litigation program provides international legal representation to prisoners of conscience whose cases are emblematic examples of the brutality of dictatorship. HRF’s team of international attorneys litigates on behalf of arbitrarily imprisoned dissidents and pro-democracy activists to several judicial and semi-judicial international bodies, including the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and multiple other special procedures under the UN Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.