Pakistan govt. urged to ensure prisoners’ safety as inmate tested positive of COVID-19


Ensure that necessary measures are taken to protect prisoners, Amnesty International and Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) implored Pakistani authorities, as an inmate at Camp Jail in Lahore who was arrested and repatriated from Italy, was reported to have been tested positive for COVID-19.

Italy is one of the worst-hit countries by the disease with almost 70,000 infections and more than 6,800 deaths.

Pakistan has recently confirmed its first deaths caused by COVID-19 outbreak.

After his deportation to Pakistan, the prisoner was taken to different barracks of the prison that houses at least 3,500 inmates. Although he has now been shifted to a medical facility, it is unclear how many other prisoners and prison staff members were inadvertently exposed to the virus.

“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.

The nature of the disease mandates preventative steps that are often not available to prisoners, including social distancing. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions mean that preventative steps such as washing hands are harder to follow.

Amnesty International said that 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.

And while the provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab have announced measures such as early release and testing in prisons, 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.

“This is perhaps the greatest health crisis of our time and it is the state’s duty to protect the most vulnerable. 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. 

According to international law and standards on conditions of detention, the Pakistani authorities should ensure that all prisoners have prompt access to medical attention and health care. The provision of health care for prisoners is a state responsibility. Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19.

Pakistani authorities must also take care to ensure that prison staff and health care workers have access to adequate information, equipment, training and support to protect themselves.

Families of prisoners have expressed concern about their loved ones being at heightened risk of COVID-19.

In Punjab, prison visits have been banned for at least the next two weeks. Salahuddin, nephew of Imdad Ali, a death row prisoner diagnosed with schizophrenia, told JPP that, “We are very anxious about how he will be affected by our absence, and hope that he is protected from becoming even more unwell.”

“Families are understandably worried about the fate of their loved ones who are in prison, especially those who are already unwell. The authorities should demonstrate that they are committed to providing reasonable care for prisoners through early releases, providing appropriate medical treatment, shifting them to hospitals if need be and vigorously testing,” said Rimmel Mohydin.

“We are hopeful that all the provinces are looking at this with the seriousness that this situation warrants to protect not only the prisoners, but also the prison administration and staff, and their families,” said Sarah Belal. (Source: Amnesty Intl.)