Maghreb governments urged to release prisoners to prevent more COVID-19 contagion

Tunisia freed 2,400 people from jail, while Algeria released 5,937 prisoners and Libya 466.
Sunday 12/04/2020
Guards belonging to Tripoli government forces stand in front of a prison in Ain Zara, south of Tripoli, Libya, April 11. (REUTERS)
Guards belonging to Tripoli government forces stand in front of a prison in Ain Zara, south of Tripoli, Libya, April 11. (REUTERS)

Governments in Morocco, Algeria,Tunisia and Libya have released thousands of people from jail and correctional facilities to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Morocco’s King Mohamed VI pardoned 5,654 prisoners including  eldery inmates and female detainees, some of them pregnant or baby mothers,  the Justice Ministry announced April 5.

Tunisia freed 2,400 people from prisons starting March 20 after two presidential pardons were issued, while Algeria released 5,937 prisoners April 1. Libya’s internationally recognised government in Tripoli released 466 detainees from correctional facilities at the end of March as the virus reached the conflict-ridden country. The releases were part of Maghreb governments’ efforts to stop COVID-19 from gaining a foothold in jails and prisons, where experts fear it could rapidly spread due to overcrowding and poor health services and sanitation.

The virus has so far killed more than 500 people and infected more than 6,000 in the region.

Rights groups and health experts said Maghreb governments had not released enough prisoners, which are often kept in overcrowded facilities where social distancing is not possible.

But governments are struggling to balance the need to keep prison as a deterrent for criminals, including those convicted of endangering public health during the crisis, and the risk of a dangerous outbreak at the facilities that could lead to riots or breakouts.

Dr Fatima Asselah, former head of Algiers's Mustapha Bacha hospital, expressed support for releasing prisoners during the crisis. “Our prisons are crowded and can respect the recommendations by the World Health Organisation to prevent the expansion of the pandemic,” Asselah said. “Jailing conditions weaken the health of the detainees and expose them to grave types of sickness, including deadly health conditions,” she added in an open letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune urging him to free prisoners of conscience and those guilty of only “minor crimes.”

“It would be wise to quickly free prisoners of conscience to avoid tragedies whose consequences will be dire for them, for their families and for all Algerians,” she added.

“It would be also sensible to release prisoners for minor offences to spare them from infections and avoid subjecting them to disproportionate punishment,” she argued.

Asselah said prison lockdowns and the suspension of family visits were “aggravating the psychological stress of prisoners without halting the spread of the virus.”

Algerian lawyer and former head of a government human rights watchdog Farouk Ksentini said 200 prisoners were sometimes crammed into the same room due to limited space.

He advised the government to free “up to 40,000 from a total of 60,000 inmates” to minimise the risk of the disease spreading there.

Rights groups said around 1,200 detainees in Algerian jails were activists from the pro-democracy movement, known as the Hirak.

They said many of these detainees were not included on a list of more than 5,000 prisoners pardoned by President Tebboune, as they were still awaiting their verdict or pending appeal.

Tahar Messaoudi, a prominent writer for the independent El Watan newspaper, said Tebboune has long been known as “compassionate with people in need of help” and so his decision not to pardon pro-democracy activists was especially telling.

“The president pardoned more than 5,000 people and he could have included the prisoners of conscience,” Messaoudi wrote. “He failed to do so and people can deduce all possible conclusions of that move.”

“We must say that he inherited this touchy issue over which the shadow of the late military commander General Ahmed Gaid Salah looms,” he wrote in reference to the role of the army commander in arresting and jailing many Hirak activists to slow the momentum of the protests.

In Tunisia, where some 20,000 people are behind bars, including about 1,400 for terror-related offences, 12 civic organisations, including the country’s main trade union, called on President Kais Saied in an open letter to free more inmates.

“Sanitary conditions and health services provided in Tunisian prisons are very bad and inmates are in crowded cells where it is impossible to enforce social distancing,” said Amnesty International in a statement April 2.

In Morocco, rights groups pushed for the release of some 30 activists and leaders of a protest movement in the predominantly Berber region of Rif that shook Morocco in late 2016 and early 2017.

“The main reason behind calls by rights groups to release these political prisoners is the health situation and the crowding of Moroccan jails,” said Maati Monjib, head of the Al Houriya Al Aane (Freedom Now) rights association.

“If these detainees fell victim to the disease, that would amplify the responsibility of officials who are behind their imprisonment,” he added.