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Calls grow to release Myanmar prisoners to tackle Covid-19

Rights groups warn that the country's crowded and unsanitary prisons cannot cope with the viral outbreak

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Calls grow to release Myanmar prisoners to tackle Covid-19

A Myanmar worker disinfects a food court area as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 at the Yangon-Mandalay highway restaurant in Bago on April 3. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

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Rights groups have called on Myanmar’s government to stem the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak by reducing the population of the country’s crowded and unsanitary prisons.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said authorities should immediately release people who were unjustly or arbitrarily detained, including those held arbitrarily long term without charge or trial and political prisoners, journalists and activists.

The New York-based group said the government should consider alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, people with disabilities that put them at greater risk of infection, children, low-level and other nonviolent offenders, and people who have served most of their jail terms.

Myanmar’s prison system, made up of 46 prisons and 50 labor camps, holds an estimated 92,000 inmates, although the official capacity is 66,000. Some 15 percent of the prison population consists of detainees awaiting trial, according to reports by Thailand-based advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP Burma).

The reports said Myanmar’s poor healthcare infrastructure and other public services are ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of coronavirus among the general population, let alone in overcrowded prisons. Only 30 doctors and 80 nurses are employed across the entire prison system.

“Prisoners in Myanmar’s horribly overcrowded and unsanitary prisons and labor camps face health hazards in the best of times, and the prison authorities are ill-equipped to treat those who become sick with Covid-19,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.

He also called for the release of those who should not have been jailed in the first place, including critics of the government.

“Convicted prisoners most at risk of falling severely ill if they get Covid-19 should be given special consideration for alternatives to detention,” Adams said in an April 4 statement.

There are 74 political prisoners serving sentences and an additional 139 detainees being held while facing trial on politically motivated charges, according to AAPP Burma.

AAPP’s 2018 report said Myanmar’s largest detention facility, Insein prison in Yangon, is at more than double capacity. The prison, built for 5,000 people, held 12,392 prisoners in February 2018.

Prisons elsewhere in Myanmar such as Myingyan in Mandalay were at almost three times their capacity, holding 2,800 in a prison built for 1,000 people.

On March 25, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention and other closed facilities to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent,” she said.

“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.”

Myanmar’s government grants amnesty to prisoners in the traditional Burmese New Year, which falls on April 17.

Myanmar has reported 21 Covid-19 cases, including one death, and authorities have urged people to stay at home as the country could face a major outbreak.

Its foreign ministry has told foreign embassies that, aside from medical equipment and supplies, the health ministry needs more Covid-19 test kits to boost its surveillance capacity in monitoring persons suspected of suffering from the pneumonia-like disease.

More than 66,000 people including thousands of migrant workers who returned from Thailand are being quarantined in government facilities across the country as of April 4, according to the health ministry.

The global death toll from Covid-19 is approaching 70,000 out of almost 1.3 million cases, according to the latest data.

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