Human Rights Organizations & Defenders: Protect the prison populace during Covid

While governments the world over are trying to deal with the pandemic, Covid, human rights defenders are also seeking their help to protect a populace that is normally ignored or forgotten: the prison populace.

On Monday March 23, 2020, Pakistan-based leading human rights organizations and defenders – Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), AGHS, Public Lawyers Front (PLF), Defence of Human Rights (DHR), Legal Aid Society, Free Legal Aid Society For the Helpless (FLASH), Members of Permanent Faculty, Shaikh Ahmad School of Law, LUMS and Vice Chairman of Pakistan Bar Council, released a joint statement seeking the protection of prison populations of Pakistan.

“We, the undersigned human rights organisations and human rights defenders, request rapid action to ensure that inmates and staff of Pakistani prisons are provided adequate protection as cases of Covid-19 continue to increase across the country. As noted in a recent order issued by the Honourable Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court, “the confined space of a prison makes it virtually impossible to implement the policy of social distancing. The prisoners are vulnerable and exposed to suffer irreparably in case of an outbreak. Prisons, which are overcrowded, have high turnover and intolerable living conditions, could potentially become epicentres for outbreak of the deadly virus” The unhygienic and overall poor condition of prisons in this country has been extensively documented. A commission report earlier this year showed that contagious and chronic infections such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis are already rampant within the prison populations. Additionally, prisons across the country are filled well beyond their capacity and of the current inmate population of more than 77,275 people, more than half are still awaiting trial and are in jail for crimes for which they have not yet been convicted. In light of the gravity of risks posed to prisoners and the wider population, the Islamabad High Court ordered, “under-trial prisoners alleged to have committed offences falling within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clause are admitted to bail.” It also noted that elderly prisoners and those who suffer pre-existing health conditions should also be considered for release. In light of the extraordinary duty of care that the government owes to prison inmates and to the population at large to reduce the impact of coronavirus and enable everyone to seek to implement measures for isolation and care within their own homes, we call upon the Federal and Provincial governments to consider the following demands:

1. The governments should urgently release persons who should not be in custody in any case – including those detained for peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights to speech, assembly or any other right granted under the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 and International human rights instruments.

2. All prisoners, including under-trial and convicted, whose offences fall within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clauses should be released immediately.

3. Pre-trial and under-trial detainees who pose no imminent threat to public security and this particularly includes those whose trials are delayed on account of the coronavirus outbreak, should be released.

4. Detained asylum seekers and migrant children should be freed.

5. In cases where the Provincial Governments are empowered under the Pakistan Prison Rules, 1978 and Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to suspend sentences, those who have served a significant portion of their sentences and are not considered to pose a threat to public safety should be considered for release.

6. Those in prisons with underlying health conditions or those above the age of 55 who are not considered to pose a threat to public safety, should also be released, since they are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

7. Female inmates who do not fall within the categories above but who have minor children requiring care during this public health emergency, should be accorded suspensions or commutations where there is no reason to believe that their release will imperil public safety.

8. The Federal and Provincial governments must work through the Inspectorate General of Prisons to identify inmates who fall within the above-mentioned categories so that detainees should not have to file individual applications. This will avert a catastrophic burdening of the court system.

9. Prior to release, all persons should be given a health screening and provided the means to return to their homes and abide further health and public safety advisories. The government must demonstrate cognisance of the fact that these are extraordinary circumstances and that people must have the means to survive without employment for some period of time.

Lastly, we would urge that the Federal and all Provincial governments make their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus within their facilities public. There also needs to be a comprehensive plan in place to protect the staff, prisoners and visitors to detention facilities.”

Human Rights Watchdog warns: Pakistan must protect its most vulnerable during Covid

The Covid19 global health crisis will have a colossal impact on the health and livelihoods of ordinary Pakistanis.

According to The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) “the government take the following rights-based economic measures without delay. The government must invest in providing protective gear to medical staff dealing with the emergency across the country. All COVID-19 testing must be nationalised and made available free of cost. A debt moratorium should be declared for at least six months and the State Bank’s monetary policy reviewed such that discount rates are cut. Small businesses must be given non-collateralised credit support, while enterprises should be given tax breaks conditioned on their retaining staff. In addition to existing beneficiaries, the Ehsaas and Benazir Income Support Programmes must be used to reach daily-wage earners immediately to provide them with enhanced livelihood support. It is time to rethink national priorities such that people, not profits, shape the country’s economic system. The situation demands an immediate increase in allocations for health, low-income housing, and social safety nets in the federal and provincial budgets. HRCP also calls on all citizens to appreciate that Pakistan is facing a crisis, and to take all precautionary measures as advised by the government and medical practitioners.”

HRCP to Govt: Provide relief to daily wage workers impacted by COVID 19

The novel coronavirus (COVID19) has spread to all countries and at the last count Pakistan had over 200 cases. The response of most countries, based on the recommendations of health specialists, is social distancing, close schools, offices, shops and businesses and work from home. While this may be easy for white-collar workers, it is impossible for daily wage workers.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a statement asking the government to protect “the poor and vulnerable, particularly on daily-wage labourers and workers who rely on the ‘gig economy’ to keep their households afloat.” As HRCP noted “It is not charity, but the responsibility of the state, to ensure food security and access to healthcare for all its citizens.”  

As HRCP stated, “Even if saved from illness, low-income groups will still contend with acute food insecurity. The lack of adequate social safety nets, such as paid leave and medical benefits, means that the overwhelming majority of workers and their families are especially vulnerable in this crisis. HRCP is sorely disappointed with the economic policies of the incumbent government, which has failed to deliver for the majority population. It is time to shift priorities, from subsidising rich individuals and institutions in the name of stabilisation and growth, to putting the wellbeing of ordinary citizens at the centre of any policy planning. The Commission demands that immediate cash and food transfers be organised for the poor and for daily-wage earners, in addition to ensuring their access to free medical care in these testing times. HRCP also demands that health workers, who are at the frontlines of this emergency, be provided the protective gear they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

Is Pakistan hiding its Coronavirus Problem?

The world is facing a global pandemic and the reactions of all democratic governments is to tell the truth to their people and try to mitigate the impact of this disaster. Pakistan, however, appears to be following the paths of allies like China and Egypt by denying or hiding facts. After weeks of refusing to admit that Pakistanis may be affected by the virus and refusing to shut down borders (especially with China) the government’s policy right now appears to be simply managing the ‘narrative’ not the reality.

On Friday, March 13, Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) that was attended by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed provincial chief ministers, top advisors and cabinet members. “While there is a need for caution, there is no need for panic,” Khan advised the public. While urging the people to follow basic hygiene and precautionary measures, he assured them that the health of the people is the government’s foremost priority. He also tweeted that he would address the nation soon and that he is “personally overseeing measures to deal with Covid-19”.

Further, “It was decided to close borders with Iran and Afghanistan, allow only three airports – Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore – to operate international flights in limited numbers while other airports will see domestic flights, and ban public gatherings. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has been tasked to coordinate with provincial governments and lead the fight against novel coronavirus. It was also decided to close all educational institutions until April 5.”

Despite what the federal government says, Pakistan took a very long time to seal its borders and has only tested 500 people to date. As of March 14 only 251 people had been tested in Sindh, 110 in Punjab, 30 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, 18 in Balochistan, nine in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and 32 in G-B. The largest number of cases are in Sindh, with only 1 reported as of now in Punjab.

It is impossible that while Sindh has cases there are none in Punjab, what is more likely the government is hiding the facts.

As Salman Masood, New York Times correspondent in Pakistan, stated on social media:

This is akin to Egypt

The government’s priorities also appear skewed. While the government has cancelled the Pakistan Day celebrations on March 23, the Tableeghi Jamaat was allowed to go ahead with its annual congregation with 250,000 people congregating outside of Lahore

As of now the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases stands at 53 with the World Health Organization (WHO) warning that Pakistan faces immense challenges ahead to contain the viral outbreak. According to WHO, “Pakistan has a highly mobile population with mega cities and undeserved people.” These cases are spread across Pakistan’s provinces, with the largest number in Sindh, and all patients were individuals with recent travel history.

When the coronavirus first broke out in China and countries around the world evacuated their citizens including students from Wuhan, Pakistan refused to do so. Tens of thousands of Pakistani students’ study in China with around 1000 in Wuhan itself. The government of Pakistan refused to evacuate them. Further, many Pakistanis travel to Iran, another epicenter of the virus, and yet Pakistan refused to close its borders with Iran as well.

Pakistan’s government may be good at Public Relations (PR) management but are they good at pandemic management!

Pashtun Human Rights Defender Idris Khattak still missing

In November 2019, New Pakistan had written about the disappearance of human rights activist and political worker Muhammad Idris Khattak. It is four months since Khattak “was forcibly disappeared on 13 November 2019 by four plainclothes men on the Swabi motorway interchange in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”

For the last few months, both the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and international human rights watchdogs – Amnesty International and Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders- have been asking the government “take every possible measure to recover Mr Khattak safely, ensure that he has immediate access to medical attention and legal counsel, and take swift action against the perpetrators. Mr Khattak suffers from diabetes and requires daily medication.”

 As of end-February 2020, 2,128 cases of enforced disappearance are still pending with the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. The HRCP, however, believes the “ number is far lower than the actual” and that “the government must take a firm stand against this abhorrent practice by signing and implementing the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.”