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Asia's overcrowded prisons await Covid-19 disaster

Rights groups call for the release of political prisoners and those jailed for minor offenses
Asia's overcrowded prisons await Covid-19 disaster

Indonesian inmates display letters in front of a prison in Lhoknga, near Banda Aceh, on April 6 after they were released due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin/ AFP)

Published: April 09, 2020 09:47 AM GMT
Updated: April 09, 2020 10:07 AM GMT

The raging Covid-19 pandemic threatens to kill thousands in Asia's overcrowded prisons if authorities fail to take immediate steps to reduce their population, warns a New York-based rights group.

Asian governments should immediately reduce the population of detainees by releasing "those who shouldn't be in jails in the first place like political prisoners and those jailed for minor offenses," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

Most prisons in Asia house more people than their capacity, with the Philippines having four times its capacity. Prisons in Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangladesh house double their capacity, according to data from worldprisonstudies.org

"A major crisis is brewing in Asia's overcrowded prisons and jails," said HRW Asia advocacy director John Sifton in an April 6 statement.

China's 1.7 million prison inmates are second only to the 2.12 million prisoners in the United States, data shows.

Besides, another one million are "cooling their feet in political education" camps in Xinjiang, while innumerable numbers are in "custody and education" facilities — a fancy term for arbitrary detention in China, the rights group said.

Except for Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau, prisons in all countries of South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia are housing more people than they can hold.

Jailed without conviction

A significant reason for overcrowding in jails is the number of poor people arrested for minor crimes and their inability to hire lawyers to bring their cases to trial. They are jailed without being convicted of any crime.

In the Philippines, for example, 75 percent of its 215,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees who have not been sentenced for any crime. In Bangladesh, the figure is 80 percent of 88,000 prisoners, while in India the number is 70 percent of 466,000 prisoners, published data shows.

Kerobokan Prison, known as "Hotel K" and located on the Indonesian island of Bali, has 1,500 prisoners occupying a block built for 350.

HRW is calling on Asian governments to comply with social distancing norms, allowing two meters of separation at all times among detainees and staff to check the spread of Covid-19 infection in jails.

It also noted that Asian prisons are unsanitary, while detainees should also be given access to potable water, hygiene products and information about the disease.

Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, is also calling for governmental action to protect prisoners.

"Now, 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," she said.

HRW has sought the immediate release of those with health risks, such as older people, pregnant women, girls and the disabled, who face a greater risk of Covid-19 in overcrowded Asian prisons.

Under the Tokyo Rules, pieced together under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures, governments have an international legal obligation to protect inmates.

They should implement a comprehensive plan to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak in detention facilities, HRW pointed out.

Higher mortality rate

Asian jails are "breeding grounds for the virus," according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has warned that prisons are likely to see a higher mortality rate from Covid-19.

The Indonesian government has already acted. More than 30,000 inmates have been released, amounting to about 10 percent of the country's prison population.

Several courts in Pakistan also ordered the release of hundreds of people awaiting trial or sentenced for petty crimes as part of coronavirus containment measures, but its Supreme Court halted the move last week. Pakistan is at number seven in Asia with slightly more than 80,000 prisoners.

In neighboring Afghanistan, the president set free 10,000 women, young offenders, critically ill patients and older inmates to "safeguard the health of people." The country released more than 30,000 inmates, amounting to some 10 percent of its prison population.

India also released thousands of prisoners following a top court order, but most Asian nations are ignoring prisoners as Covid-19 deaths continue unabated across the world.

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