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HRW: COVID-19 spreading in UAE prisons

June 11, 2020 at 11:18 am

Pedestrians walk past Dubai’s courts building during a hearing on 4 April 2010 [AFP/Getty Images]

There has been an outbreak of the coronavirus in at least three UAE detention centres, Human Rights Watch warned in a report published yesterday, as it called on authorities to “urgent measures to protect the mental and physical health of prisoners”.

Family members of prisoners in al-Wathba prison near Abu Dhabi, as well as in al-Awir prison and the new al-Barsha detention center in Dubai told Human Rights Watch that prisoners in these facilities have exhibited Covid-19 symptoms or tested positive for the virus, the organisation said.

Adding that prisoners had been “denied adequate medical care, that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions make social distancing and recommended hygiene practices very difficult, and that authorities are not providing information to prisoners and their families about the apparent outbreaks or precautionary measures.”

“Crowded, unsanitary prison conditions and widespread denial of adequate medical care are nothing new in the UAE’s notorious detention facilities, but the ongoing pandemic is an additional serious threat to prisoners’ well-being,” said Michael Page, HRW’s Middle East deputy director.

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According to family members of detainees, beginning in mid-April, six prisoners in at least two wings said they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. “He called us on May 25,” one relative told HRW. “He said that he’d been lying in bed for two days without being able to move at all; he said he can’t even reach the Quran next to him, and that he’s feeling a blockage in his chest, as well as fever and fatigue. He said: ‘I can’t move my body, I can’t sleep.’”

Prison authorities began transferring those exhibiting symptoms to other unknown locations without testing or providing medical care, HRW explained.

The organisation said it spoke to one former detainee who left the UAE in March and the family members of two detainees in Al-Sadr prison in Abu Dhabi, who reported overcrowding and unhygienic conditions. “He [my relative] told me it’s filthy,” one said. “There are cockroaches everywhere. There are no blankets or pillows. It’s so overcrowded, they’re kept like cattle. And there’s no sunlight.”

It added that families had reported being unable to contact their detained relatives for weeks.

All UAE prisons should enable prisoners to engage in social distancing, in accordance with the guidelines set for the general population, without resorting to punitive conditions that resemble solitary confinement, HRW said. Government officials should also ensure that everyone in detention has access to adequate medical care.

“UAE authorities should be forthright about what’s going on and move quickly to avoid a wider spread of the virus that could put the lives of prisoners at serious risk,” Page said.