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United Arab Emirates : reported Covid-19 prison outbreaks

(Beirut) – UAE prison authorities should take urgent measures to protect the mental and physical health of prisoners amid reported Covid-19 outbreaks in at least three detention facilities across the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

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. They said that prisoners, including some with chronic health conditions, have 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, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The best way for UAE authorities to allay concerns of prisoners’ family members is to allow inspection by independent, international monitors.”

Several family members said they hadn’t been able to communicate with imprisoned relatives for weeks. Human Rights Watch wrote to the UAE interior minister on June 7, 2020 but has received no response.

Human Rights Watch spoke to family members of seven inmates at al-Wathba. Beginning in mid-April, six prisoners in at least two wings said they were experiencing Covid-19 symptoms. “He called us on May 25,” said one relative. “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.’”

At the start of the reported outbreak, family members said, prison authorities began transferring those exhibiting symptoms to other unknown locations without testing or providing medical care for weeks to the inmates who remained behind. “My brother said they were hearing rumors [of an outbreak] from the beginning, about a month ago,” one relative said on June 3. “No one knows where they took people who were showing symptoms. They just isolate them from others. No one [who stayed behind] was getting [pain] medicine, no doctors would come to see them, they had no masks, no gloves, no sanitization. The cells are overcrowded, same as before. Only about a week ago they started testing them.”

Other family members also said that Emirati prison authorities have not taken adequate measures to prevent the spread of the virus such as increasing the supply of soap and hand sanitizer or distributing gloves and masks to detainees. Families said that since the outbreak, precautionary measures have included prison guards and staff halting all physical contact with prisoners and prisoners are unable to leave their block as before to buy food or basic necessities. “They have migrant workers who come give them the food now but without entering the cells, just by the door,” said another prisoner’s relative.

The relatives of at least two prisoners who were transferred out of their cells following testing said they have had no contact since their transfer, and are only aware of their possible infection and transfer because of information from other prisoners. “All I want is for my brother to be taken to hospital and be medically treated,” said the relative of a prisoner transferred to a different ward on May 28.

On June 3, one prisoner in al-Wathba told his family he had tested positive but wasn’t transferred from his cell. Several days before, he told them he had severe pain in his joints and bones, couldn’t sleep or eat, and had not received medical care or pain medication. “He said they’re probably all infected now,” the relative said.

In the al-Barsha detention center, where Dubai authorities hold people in pretrial detention, family members of one prisoner said that in late April a group of new detainees arrived at his already overcrowded block, where detainees were sleeping on the floor for lack of beds. Some new arrivals started showing Covid-19 symptoms.

The family members said that detention conditions then deteriorated, with prisoners unable to leave their block or buy food or basic necessities from the prison shop. After administering tests every few days to everyone in the block, prison guards would call out names of prisoners and take them away without explanation. Inmates believed that those taken away had tested positive.

Eventually, in early May, family members said, their relative and everyone else remaining in his block were transferred to al-Awir central prison, where prison authorities quarantined them for 17 days in conditions that resembled solitary confinement. “They had no contact whatsoever with the outside world, we had no information where he was or if he was okay,” said his relative, who lives outside the UAE. “I called the prison again and again. They wouldn’t tell me anything. I asked my lawyer to find out, I asked a friend to go to the prison and inquire, they finally acknowledged to him that my brother was alive. My brother later told me that those 17 days he spent in solitary were worse than all of the time he spent in detention [3 months] before it.”

Also in al-Awir, sources recently told Human Rights Watch that since mid-March authorities have denied prisoners living with HIV access to Rashid hospital, which is in charge of their care, which they said was to contain the spread of the virus. Human Rights Watch previously reported on regular denial of access to HIV medication for these prisoners. On May 18, 47 international public health groups appealed to UAE authorities to release prisoners with HIV who are vulnerable to Covid-19 “given it appears their health cannot be adequately protected while they remain in detention.”

Human Rights Watch also 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.”

One family member said on May 29 that their detained relative told them of a coronavirus outbreak in another ward, with seven prisoners who tested positive transferred to a hospital and others quarantined in solitary confinement cells. “He is so scared to go into that dark hole,” the relative said. “He has a heart condition too.” Human Rights Watch was unable to corroborate the outbreak with other sources.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per day in the UAE continues to rise, with 994 recorded on May 22, the highest number recorded in a single day, and 39,376 total cases by June 9.

In late April, UAE authorities released over 4,000 detainees, the majority as part of the traditional amnesty for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The amnesty did not allay family members’ concerns regarding overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. No one held unjustly based on their peaceful dissent was released, including the prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor in al-Sadr prison, and the academic Nasser bin Ghaith in al-Razeen prison, both of whom suffered deteriorating health from abusive detention conditions and denial of access to health care.

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, Human Rights Watch said. Government officials should also ensure that everyone in detention has access to adequate medical care.

UAE authorities should further reduce prison populations to allow for social distancing and ensure that everyone in prison has access to vital information and safe access to family and legal counsel. The authorities should put in place appropriate hygiene and cleaning protocols, and provide training and supplies such as masks, sanitizers, and gloves to reduce risk of further infection. They should promptly allow independent international monitors to enter the country and regularly monitor prison and detention facilities.

“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.

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