UAE: report on the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic inside Emirati prisons


This post is also available in: arالعربية (Arabic)

The International Center for Justice and Human Rights learned that the UAE authorities are intentionally obscuring details and early signs of the coronavirus outbreak inside its prisons and refusing to reveal the real number of the prisoners affected with the epidemic. The government has lost control over the virus and failed to provide the necessary guarantees to prevent it.

  1. Obfuscation, secretiveness and lack of transparency

The ICJHR has previously confirmed that prisoner of conscience, Abdullah Awad Al-Shamsi, has been diagnosed with COVID-19 at al Wathba prison. In fact, 31 inmates out of 200 in ward n°9 had tested positive, while one case was found in ward No. 4 on the 16th of April, and another in ward No. 6.

The virus has not only affected Emirati detainees. Indeed, family of Lebanese detainee Ahmed Sobh, who was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, confirmed that he had contracted Coronavirus in Al-Wathba Prison. They further affirmed that other Lebanese inmates, including Hussein Barda, Abdul Rahman Shoman, Ali Al-Mabdar, Abdullah Hani Abdullah and Ahmed Makkawi have showed early symptoms of the epidemic including fever, weakness and fatigue and they are still awaiting for the tests’ results.

The ICJHR believes that the virus has spread in all wards of Al Wathba jail due to the overcrowding and lack of basic hygiene. Amid a worldwide pandemic, such conditions are treacherous. 

Besides, the Center found out that Emirati Prison Authorities refuse to disclose the true number of infected inmates and lack transparency in dealing with this pandemic. They have also denied permission to international organizations and rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur on Health, to visit its jails and detention centers to ensure that their compliance with relevant international standards.

  1. Absence of precautions set by the World Health Organization to prevent the spread of the epidemic

Al Wathba prison administration did not take any precautionary measures as recommended by the World Health Organization to prevent the spread of the illness. Suspected cases and new detainees were not isolated and quarantined before being placed in the wards with the rest of the inmates.

Tests for the coronavirus were not conducted and the prison health system has been ruled unconstitutionally inadequate especially with presence of unsanitary conditions and lack of cleaning materials and face masks. Social distancing is nearly impossible inside the rooms and wards in addition to the health negligence and denial of adequate medical care for the infected in the UAE’s notorious detention facility.

The ICJHR unsuccessfully waited the authorities to reduce prison populations and release detainees, human rights activists, bloggers, and political opponents to allow for social distancing so that jails would not turn into epidemic hotspots.

No one held unjustly based on their peaceful dissent was released. Human rights defenders and bloggers are still languishing in jails solely for demanding their basic rights and freedoms and for criticizing the human rights situation in the UAE; where they were subjected to torture and abuse.

  1. Families of inmates are worried

Several family members said they hadn’t been able to communicate with their imprisoned relatives for weeks which increased their concerns about the possible infection of COVID-19. They added that some prisoners have been denied adequate medical care and that authorities are not providing information to prisoners and their families about the apparent outbreaks or precautionary measures, in breach of the detainees ’right to health and life.

Noting that the UAE has no right to prevent the detainees from having family visits, since it can be carried out through glass, thus maintain distance. They could have taken a number of preventive precautions, such as reducing the number of visitors or allowing remote communication via phone or Internet, which was not the case.

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare several unsettling truths about UAE’s prison system. Emirati authorities are therefore bound to immediately release human rights activists, bloggers, and political opponents and conduct an impartial investigation into their abuses. They shall also bring to justice all the responsible and give the victims the right to remedy, redress and reparation.

They shall also allow families of the inmates to visit and communicate remotely with their sons through phone or internet and be transparent and publicly announce the rates of coronavirus sufferers in UAE jails, especially Al-Wathba and al Razeen prisons.

This post is also available in: arالعربية (Arabic)

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