To mitigate the impact of COVID-19, UAE must release all prisoners of conscience #LetThePrisonersOut
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continue to face abysmal detention conditions, which place them amongst those most vulnerable to the virus. Emirati prison authorities notoriously violate internationally agreed standards such as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Problems include overcrowding, conditions of poor sanitation and inadequate, or non-existent, medical care.
In a statement last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human RIghts Michelle Bachelet said that “physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible” and urged for urgent action to be taken in order to protect the health and safety of detainees and staff. Accordingly, the UK Ministry of Justice confirmed the release of hundreds of inmates after 55 prisoners, 18 prison staff and 4 prison escort staff were tested positive for COVID-19 in the UK. The Justice Minister Naomi Long responded by issuing a Written Ministerial Statement regarding the temporary release of some prisoners in order to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. This appears to have become common practice as governments around the world including many in the MENA region, take similar measures. Iran announced that it would temporarily free 70,000 prisoners in early March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although they did not release human rights defenders; on 11 March, Bahrain released 1486 prisoners for “humanitarian reasons” related to the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether the UAE authorities will follow in these footsteps.
Detainees in some of the UAE’s most infamous prisons, al-Sadr, al-Wathba and al-Razeen, live in small, unsanitary cells with insufficient ventilation, non-potable drinking water and food shortages or expired food.
Last year, in a letter written from prison, 22-year old prisoner of conscience Maryam al Balushi complained about the degrading conditions of detention at al Wathba prison, where detainees are denied clean drinking water and are served inadequate food resulting in ill-health, saying that “the water is not fit to drink, so we drink unclean water from the bathroom” and that “insects can also be found in salads and cockroaches in rice”.
Overcrowding is another major issue. In al-Wathba, cells are suitable for only eight people but accommodate dozens of prisoners, forcing them to share beds or sleep on the floor. On top of this, the cells are infested with ants and cockroaches, leading to the rapid transmission of diseases among detainees. During the summer months, air conditioners are disrupted; in the winter, unclean, foul-smelling blankets are distributed to prisoners. No cleaning equipment or hygiene products are provided.
Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender is being held in a 2 x 2 meter cell in al-Sadr’s isolation ward lacking basic necessities, including a mattress to sleep on. Previously, he had no access to running water, hence could not shower, and his toilet is merely a hole in the ground. As a result of two hunger strikes, the latest of which lasting at least five months, he has lost a significant amount of weight which has further exacerbated existing health problems and left him unable to walk unassisted. Another prisoner, whose health has deteriorated significantly after several hunger strikes in protest against his unjust conviction and his subjection to torture and ill-treatment, is Dr Nasser bin Ghaith. Bin Ghaith is a lecturer at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and a prominent human rights defender. He is currently being held at al Razeen prison, often referred to as “the Guantanamo of the UAE”. In their current state, both prisoners are highly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Systematic medical negligence proves to be another area of grave concern in the Emirati prison system: the lack or denial of essential health care appears to be a common theme across all UAE prisons, increasing the risk of fatalities. Dr bin Ghaith, for instance, suffers from high blood pressure and cardiomegaly (the enlargement of the heart), but continues to be denied vital blood pressure medication and healthcare. Similarly, prisoners living with HIV are denied regular access to vital and necessary treatment, putting them at grave risk. In a case that shocked the international community, Alia Abdulnour, who was convicted for charitable donations to Syrian refugees, was denied urgent treatment despite being diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after her arrest in 2015. She was reportedly forced to sign a document stating that she refused chemotherapy. After four years of suffering, she sadly passed away last year chained to her bed in Tawam prison hospital.
As Michelle Bachelet stated last week, “[n]ow, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views”. ICFUAE echoes this sentiment and calls on the UAE authorities to release all prisoners of conscience and those who suffer serious or terminal illnesses, improve detention conditions and provide access to medical care.