Calls mount for protecting, releasing prisoners against COVID-19 risk

Approximately 200 people in Egypt have tested positive for the virus.
Sunday 22/03/2020
A picture taken during a guided tour organised by the Egyptian State Information Service shows inmates receiving medical treatment at the clinic of Borg el-Arab Prison near  Alexandria, November 20, 2019. (AFP)
Raising questions. A picture taken during a guided tour organised by the Egyptian State Information Service shows inmates receiving medical treatment at the clinic of Borg el-Arab Prison near Alexandria, November 20, 2019. (AFP)

CAIRO - Rights advocates called on Egyptian authorities to protect tens of thousands of prisoners against COVID-19, with fears from the virus sweeping the country. There have been demonstrations also calling for release of the detainees with the police arresting some of the protesters.

Authorities have a moral obligation to protect prisoners, including by temporarily releasing them, to prevent the virus from spreading through the country’s prisons, rights activists said.

“There are credible fears for the safety of the prisoners,” said rights lawyer Negad el-Borai. “The fear is that the disease can appear inside the prisons.”

Packed with prisoners and low on cleanliness, prisons are becoming the centre of COVID-19 concerns in the rights community.

Approximately 200 people in Egypt have tested positive for the virus. Six, including a foreign national, died. More than 20 of those diagnosed with COVID-19 have recovered.

To stem COVID-19 infections, Egypt has suspended flights to and from the country, is keeping schoolchildren at home and has closed universities. Authorities cancelled cultural events that require an audience and asked female civil servants to stay at home.

Biological and chemical warfare personnel have been disinfecting public places, including train stations, public parks and schools.

Health authorities reached out to the public via social media to warn against taking the disease lightly and advised them to regularly wash their hands and avoid crowded places.

People on Egyptian streets are seen wearing gloves and face masks. Some do not touch doorknobs or shopping carts at grocery stores without first spraying them with steriliser.

Disinfectants and detergents are disappearing from the shop shelves. Immunity-enhancing medicines are turning into a huge business.

The same concern is apparent in the rights community but for the safety of the prisoners. The government does not provide a specific number of the prisoners in the country’s 86 jails; however, last November, pro-government TV host Nasha’at al-Deihei said there were 114,000 people in prisons.

Rights advocates said they are especially concerned about those in temporary detention, which Deihei said totalled 30,000 people, and the government should temporarily release them especially those over the age of 50.

“This will protect those prisoners against the disease,” said rights advocate Khaled Emam.

Egypt’s Criminal Procedure Law gives the prosecution the right to release those in temporary detention for a specific period. The prisoners can report to police every day to ensure that they are still in Egypt. Also, Article 155 of the Egyptian Constitution gives the Egyptian president the right to pardon prisoners.

“Any of these measures can prevent health catastrophes from happening inside the prisons,” Emam said.

Egyptian prison authorities have banned visits by prisoners’ relatives and said they are trying to keep prisons safe.

“The precautionary measures taken inside the prisons are even more powerful than those taken outside them,” said retired police general Fouad Allam. “The prisons are always decontaminated, prisoners showing the symptoms of disease undergo strong tests and those with chronic diseases are under the close watch of prison doctors.”

The Egyptian government has not officially commented on points raised by the rights community as far as COVID-19 and prisons are concerned.

On March 18, four political activists, including writer Ahdaf Soueif, were arrested when they staged a protest in Cairo to call on authorities to release prisoners to protect them against COVID-19.

The same issue has been widely used by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has seen thousands of its members jailed in the past six years in a government crackdown on the group.

Hamza Zawba, a Muslim Brotherhood host who appears on Mekameleen TV, which is broadcast from Turkey, said on March 13 that the release of prisoners should mark a new beginning between Egyptian authorities and the prisoners.

The Muslim Brotherhood has conducted a misinformation campaign against Egypt for years. Egyptian authorities also accuse the Islamist movement of being behind terrorist attacks in Egypt since 2013.

Some said the involvement of the Brotherhood calling for the release of the prisoners discredits the effort but rights advocates said the issue is less about politics and more about the health of the prisoners and the prison staff members.

“The density of the prisons, poor ventilation inside them and the lack of enough cleanliness in them make the implementation of any precautionary measures a difficult matter,” Borae said. “Older prisoners are prone to COVID-19 complications and this should be clear in the minds of the prison authorities.”

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