Protecting the detainees should be part of our fight against COVID-19
'History is a construct. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary. Still there are definite moments, moments we use as references, because they break our sense of continuity,' Margaret Atwood.
Living with the threat of the coronavirus is undoubtedly one of these moments. And if there were one single fact that broke our 'sense of continuity', it would be that we are all concerned, regardless of who we are or where we live. Hence to be effective, local measures of protection should cover all segments of the society and global compliance should be enforced to ensure prevalence of our fight against the spread of COVID-19 .
One of the most vulnerable populations, in Canada and worldwide are those behind bars. In our jails, they could be immigrants who have committed no offence; or legally innocent people awaiting bail hearings or trials. In many other countries, they are prisoners of conscience. They remain the invisible, voiceless ones forgotten in the mayhem.
Now more than ever, chronic prison problems are compounded. Being locked up means overcrowded conditions with no possibility of socially distancing and hence a heightened probability of infectious disease. 'This is exactly when our Constitution requests governments to step up to treat everyone humanely', proclaims the Canadian Civil Liberty Association which urges authorities at all levels to take measures to enhance the safety of individuals in custody, of correctional staff including healthcare staff in these institutions, and of their families and communities.
Among CCLA recommendations:
All police and prosecutors should be encouraged, with support from their governments, to put public health ahead of fear, and exercise their discretionary authority to release those who do not pose a risk to the public.
And considering the harms of isolation and people's need for information, connecting detainees and inmates with their loved ones through free phone calls and online chats should be implemented. These are particularly important to individuals' well-being and mental health now that visits in prisons have been suspended.
The United Kingdom has reportedly released 4,000 inmates and clamouring is mounting in the States to take similar steps. What about those behind bars in countries notorious for their poor record regarding justice and civil liberties?
Following the call of the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Mr Javaid Rehman, Iran temporarily released 85,000 prisoners, including political and security-related prisoners. A similar mandatory move should be urgently called for by the international community and dully implemented by Egyptian authorities.
Ottawa should take a leading role in this respect especially since a Canadian citizen has been detained in the notorious Tora prison since February 2019 without any charges. Already, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued an advisory note about the situation in Egyptian prisons.
'we are nevertheless also very concerned about the overcrowded prisons in Egypt and the risk of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus among the country's more than 114,000 inmates. We therefore also urge the Egyptian Government to follow the lead of other states around the world and release those convicted of non-violent offences and those who are in pre-trial detention, who make up just below one third of those in jail.
Egyptian prisons are sadly known for their squalid conditions. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/egypt/10683781/Smuggled-footage-reveals-squalid-conditions-inside-Egyptian-jail.html.
Inmates are crammed in such smalls cells that they have to wait for their turns to lay down and sleep. Facilities for hygiene are dispensed as a privilege and medical neglect is the norm.
Since General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi took power in 2013, an estimated 60,000 political prisoners have been detained and over 600 people have died in Egyptian prisons due to the intentional dire incarceration conditions or as a result of torture. http://www.aohr.org.uk/en/all-releases/item/17953-the-state-of-detentions
Iran and Egypt, share the unenviable positions of last countries when it comes to civil liberties. According to the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index for 2020, out of 128 countries, Iran ranked last on the Fundamental Rights indicator, preceded by Egypt. On the Open Government indicator, Iran placed 124, and Egypt came last. Those figures are not surprising for anyone familiar with the fate of any opposing voice in the two countries. https://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-law-index/
If Iran can take measures to ease the congestion in its prisons why not Egypt? And if Egyptian authorities aren't taking the health threat seriously, then the international community should take decisive steps for the protection of all.
We, collectively as governments and people, will be remembered by how we responded to the threat of COV-19, locally and internationally. Hopefully, together, we will rise up to the challenge.
Written on behalf of ECCD Board of DIrectors
About ECCD: Egyptian Canadian Coalition for Democracy (ECCD) is a politically independent, non-affiliated pan Canadian organization with representatives in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver, which advocates for democracy and human rights in Egypt.
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