Rights group raises alarm over health conditions in Qatari jail

Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned COVID-19 inside Doha central prison could become “a public health disaster.”
Tuesday 19/05/2020
A Doha field hospital set up by Qatari authorities to treat people infected with the coronavirus. (Reuters)
A Doha field hospital set up by Qatari authorities to treat people infected with the coronavirus. (Reuters)

London –

Human Rights Watch (HRW) decried May 18 the conditions in Qatari prisons, warning that the spread of COVID-19 inside the Doha central prison could potentially become “a public health disaster.”

In a report, the New York-based international organisation called on Doha to take urgent measures to reduce prison populations, condemning the absence of “appropriate hygiene and cleaning protocols, including providing training and supplies such as masks, sanitizers, and gloves to reduce risk of further infection.”

“Qatari authorities should move quickly to avoid wider spread of coronavirus that risks infecting prisoners, prison staff, and Doha residents,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

“Qatar can start by releasing vulnerable prisoners such as older people and those held for low-level or nonviolent offenses and by ensuring that the remaining prisoners have adequate access to medical care.”

In a response to the HRW report, Doha confirmed 12 coronavirus cases in its central prison but denied a widespread outbreak, saying all infected patients had been “transferred immediately” to a specialised hospital, isolating them from others.

Qatar’s communications office said the report of an outbreak “is false,” adding that there have been no fatalities among the prison population, and that prisoners were being provided with health services “equal” to the rest of the country’s residents.

An empty children playground after the pandemic in Doha, Qatar. (Reuters)
An empty children playground after the pandemic in Doha, Qatar. (Reuters)

The statement added that of the 12 prisoners with the disease, two had reached the “acute phase” of the illness and were receiving “first-class healthcare.”

Six foreign detainees, who were interviewed by the rights group in recent days, described a deterioration in prison conditions in Qatar’s only central prison in Doha after several prisoners were suspected of having contracted the virus.

The detainees said that guards informally told them in recent weeks about the suspected outbreak, though Qatari authorities have not publicly confirmed it.

Prison authorities have given inconsistent and incomplete information to prisoners, HRW said.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Qatar continues to increase, with 1,733 cases recorded May 14, the highest number recorded in the country in a single day.

Struggling to contain the pandemic, the authorities in the Gulf country announced a series of new measures aimed at curbing the spread, including the suspension of most commercial activities until May 30.

All shops, with the exception of food and catering shops, pharmacies, restaurant delivery services and a few other essential services, will also be closed during the same time period, which coincides with the official Eid al-Fitr holiday.

As of May 19, Qatar’s health ministry reported 35,606 cases of coronavirus nationwide, of which 5,634 have recovered. At least 15 people have died.

In view of the pandemic’s rapid spread, the HRW and other health and rights organisations have called on authorities in Qatar and elsewhere  to reduce their prison populations through early release of low-risk detainees, including those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said March 25 that governments need to prevent foreseeable threats to public health and have a particular duty to protect the physical and mental health of prisoners.

Bachelet said that “Covid-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centres … and risks rampaging through such institutions’ extremely vulnerable populations.”

She described the “potentially catastrophic” consequences of neglecting to protect the health of people in custody and urged governments to “act now to prevent further loss of life among detainees and staff.”

“The reported spread of Covid-19 in Qatar’s central jail could fast become a public health disaster,” Page said. “Qatari authorities have the power to reduce the harm, but they need to act quickly and decisively.”

(With news agencies).