Government urged to protect prisoners from coronavirus

Updated 25 Mar 2020


Amnesty International and JPP put out joint statement. — AFP/File
Amnesty International and JPP put out joint statement. — AFP/File

KARACHI: As Pakistan records its seven deaths because of the Covid-19 outbreak, the rights groups on Tuesday asked the authorities to take necessary measures to protect prisoners.

In a joint statement, the Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan said according to media reports, an inmate at Camp Jail, Lahore had tested positive for Covid-19. The prisoner had been arrested in Italy, one of the worst-hit countries by the disease. After his deportation to Pakistan, he was taken to different barracks of the prison that houses at least 3,500 inmates.

Although he has now been taken to a medical facility, it was unclear how many other prisoners and prison staff members were inadvertently exposed to the virus, they said.

The statement said the nature of the disease mandated preventative steps that were often not available to prisoners, including social distancing. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions meant that preventative steps such as washing hands were harder to follow.

The human rights organisations said Pakistan authorities should consider whether the outbreak qualifies certain prisoners for parole or early release, taking into account their individual circumstances and the risk posed to vulnerable groups such as the elderly or those in poor health. Efforts should be made to release older detainees, who no longer pose a threat to public safety, and there should be a presumption of release for people charged with a criminal offence who are awaiting trial, they added.

The provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab had announced measures such as early release and testing in prisons. The statement said these commitments must be followed through and replicated nationwide. Not doing so could place the health of more than 77,000 prisoners in Pakistan at greater risk, they warned.

“Prisons in Pakistan face massive overcrowding, overruling the possibility of social distancing, with the potential for a large outbreak. Hygiene supplies remain limited as does healthcare. Pre-trial detainees are taken to courts where they may be exposed to the virus. Pakistani authorities should seriously consider reducing the prison population,” said Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International.

“Due to the unprecedented rate at which the virus is spreading coupled with its high mortality rate, the Pakistani government must devise a coherent approach to protecting its prison population, currently at over 77,000 individuals. Should the government fail to act now, Pakistani prisons and detention centres will become epicentres for the transmission of Covid-19,” said Sarah Belal, Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2020