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Homeland Security

UN Urging Governments to Release At-Risk Prisoners to Reduce COVID-19 Spread

By Lisa Schlein April 04, 2020

The U.N. human rights office is urging countries to release prisoners from overcrowded facilities to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections spreading throughout the prison population and into the wider community

U.N. officials say they are encouraged by the number of countries heeding High Commissioner Michele Bachelet's prisoner release appeal. For example, they say Iran has released around 100,000 prisoners or 40 percent of its prison population on a temporary basis. They note Indonesia has announced plans to release some 30,000 prisoners convicted of minor crimes and Turkey is considering a similar action.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said prisoners at high-risk of infection, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, and pregnant women who pose no risk to society should be immediately released.

He told VOA people who are being held illegally should be released immediately. They include political prisoners and those detained for critical, dissenting views, such as journalists and human rights defenders. He said very few political prisoners are among the thousands that have been released in Iran.

"That is a big issue and obviously, these are not rapists, murderers, people guilty of serious crimes. Indeed, under international law, many are not guilty of any crime at all. So, we believe these should be absolutely among the first prioritized for release," he said.

Colville said the mass incarceration of people in Syria's overcrowded central prisons and detention facilities run by the government security branches and military is alarming. Even before COVID-19 became an issue, he says his agency had received reports of people dying in these facilities due to torture and denial of medical care.

He said similar conditions exist in facilities run by non-state armed groups, but on a smaller scale.

The U.N. human rights office is appealing to the Syrian government and armed groups to urgently thin out their prison populations to prevent COVID-19 from spreading and adding to yet more loss of life after nine years of brutal civil war.

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