Amnesty International

As cases of coronavirus increase in sub-Saharan Africa, authorities in the region must take urgent action to protect inmates from COVID-19 by decongesting the prisons, Amnesty International has said.

The director for west and central Africa of the group, Samira Daoud, said in a statement on Monday that this was important to avert a public health catastrophe in the region.

Given “the general lack of healthcare and sanitation,” he urged authorities to release prisoners of conscience, while reviewing cases of pre-trial detention, and guaranteeing access to healthcare and sanitation products in all facilities.

“In many countries across the region, a high proportion of those in detention are there just for peacefully exercising their human rights,” Mr Daoud said.

“As well as being the right thing to do, releasing prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally would free up space in these facilities and help to protect prisoners and staff from the virus.”

AI also called on authorities to consider early, temporary or conditional release of older prisoners, those with underlying medical conditions, as well as women and girls who are in detention with dependent children or who are pregnant.

In the bid to decongest Nigeria’s correctional centres just as COVID-19 gradually sweeps through states in the country, President Muhammadu Buhari recently granted pardon to 2600 inmates nationwide.

Largely due to delayed trials, a report by the nation’s statistics bureau shows that from 2011 to 2015, 72.5 per cent of Nigeria’s total prison population are inmates serving time without being sentenced.

Shortly after the presidential amnesty was announced, the head of the Nigerian Correctional Service, Ja’afaru Ahmed, corroborated this report, saying 51,983 inmates are awaiting trial out of the prison’s total population of 73,726 inmates. This is seven in every ten inmates, in estimates.

While this action was taken at federal level, some state maximum facilities are yet to get the same attention.

Amnesty said pre-trial detention remains an excessively used tool of punishment across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Citing countries like Senegal, Madagascar, Burundi and Congo, the group noted that their facilities hold far more than its capacities can absorb, most in pre-trial detentions, thereby causing disease outbreak, starvation as well deaths.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons in DRC were deadly places. As well as exposing the appalling reality people deprived of their liberty face, the virus is exacerbating the risks that detainees face day today,” the group’s statement read.

AI also urged African governments to release all prisoners of conscience who were detained for exercising their democratic rights.

It listed journalists, human rights defenders, students as well as political opponents in different African countries who have remained behind bars for expressing a dissenting voice.

“Amnesty International considers all these people prisoners of conscience who have been imprisoned for exercising their human rights. They must be released immediately and unconditionally,” AI said.

Last week, for instance, a Nigerian journalist, Chijioke Agwu, was arrested for writing a story on Lassa fever, which Ebonyi State Governor David Umahi claimed violated the state’s coronavirus law The journalist has since been ‘pardoned’ by the governor.

“The spread of COVID-19 is a public health concern even in prisons and other detention facilities, Mr Daoud further noted.

“Reducing the number of people in detention should be an integral and urgent part of state responses to COVID-19, which must begin by immediately and unconditionally releasing all those who shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place,” he said.

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