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AFP
April 18, 2020

Pandemic worsens plight of Middle East prisoners

World

AFP
April 18, 2020

CAIRO: As governments in the Middle East isolate their populations to prevent the spread of coronavirus, attention is turning to the region´s jails, where detainees face a more punishing form of lockdown. “Because of the pandemic, confinement is an additional punishment for the prisoners,” said Kaddour Chouicha, 63, an engineering professor at Algeria´s University of Oran and a human rights activist.

Chouicha was detained in December. He is part of an anti-regime protest movement that toppled longtime autocrat Abdelaziz Bouteflika more than a year ago. Some Middle Eastern governments have released prisoners as part of their response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, while others have ignored pressure to do so.

Iran has temporarily released 100,000 detainees, while Bahrain freed hundreds last month and Morocco and Tunisia have announced pardons that affect thousands of prisoners. Algeria too has pardoned some 5,000 inmates. But for those still languishing in jails, incarceration is a brutal experience. “You have to plan for the future,” Chouicha said of surviving the prison time. “It´s the only way.”

Egyptian authorities have rejected pleas to free up overcrowded jails, continuing to imprison dissidents even as COVID-19 infections in the country rise. Rights group Amnesty International last month urged Egypt to release “all activists and human rights defenders detained solely for peacefully expressing their views”, along with pre-trial detainees and vulnerable prisoners.

One former detainee, who preferred not to be identified out of fear of repercussions, said there was a “catastrophe brewing in prisons” in the country because of unsanitary conditions and overcrowding. “We used to dream of having the metal door to the cell opened even though it led to a hallway with a prison guard.

Psychologically, that meant a lot to us,” the ex-detainee and writer told AFP. He spent around two years in a cramped cell with some 25 other men in the Borg al-Arab prison, near the northern city of Alexandria, and recounted how a hole in the ground functioned as a rudimentary bathroom for showering and as a latrine.

“We had a tattered blanket that we used as a door for privacy, and the little running water we had... would wash away all the filth on an already dirty cement floor,” said the former inmate, who was released in late 2015. “We slept on our ´swords´, meaning we lay on the floor next to each other on our sides. You couldn´t sleep on your back, that was out of the question because of the lack of space,” he added.