Libya frees over 450 inmates due to virus fears

FILE PHOTO- Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (not pictured) at the Parliament in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS-Costas Baltas

Libya’s justice ministry announced on Sunday that over 450 prisoners were being freed in a bid to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) in the wake of the war-torn country’s first declared infections.

Judicial officials decided to “free 466 detainees from correctional facilities” in Tripoli, according to a statement by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord’s justice ministry.

The detainees were in pre-trial detention or had qualified for conditional release, the statement added.

Authorities announced five new coronavirus cases in the western city of Misrata on Sunday, bringing the tally of infections confirmed in Libya to eight. The country’s first case had been confirmed on Tuesday.

Other measures “aimed at reducing the overpopulation of prisons” will follow, including amnesty for elderly or ill prisoners and those who have served over half their sentences, according to the ministry statement.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) applauded the justice ministry’s move as a “positive first step”, but said “authorities should do more to mitigate the risks of a major Covid-19 outbreak”.

‘Healthcare system won’t be able to cope’

Libyan authorities “need to be prepared to limit the spread of the virus in overcrowded detention facilities and shelters for displaced people”, HRW said in a statement.

Libya has been plagued by conflict since the 2011 overthrow of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Since April 2019, forces loyal to eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar have been fighting to seize the capital in an offensive that has killed hundreds and displaced 150 000 people.

“If the Covid-19 pandemic spreads in Libya, the country’s healthcare system won’t be able to cope with large numbers of patients,” said HRW Libya researcher Hanan Salah.

Both the UN-recognised GNA and a rival eastern-based government under the control of Haftar have taken preventative measures against the spread of the virus, including closing schools, some businesses, markets and even private clinics.

The GNA announced an extended curfew on Sunday from 14:00 local time until 07:00, starting from Monday.

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