Criminalized human rights defenders and inmates face new risks in prison from the coronavirus

Published by Brent Patterson on

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On March 20, the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) tweeted, “A complaint from CSPP warns that the officials of the [Colombian National Penitentiary and Prison Institute] have not taken preventive measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in some prisons, which is why, they say, it creates a risk for inmates.”

Conditions for inmates

An article in El Pais adds, “The Committee collected the complaints made by the inmates in the El Buen Pastor and La Picota (Bogotá), Acacías (Meta), Bellavista (Medellín), Palogordo (Santander) and Chimitá (Bucaramanga) prisons…”

“…They found inconsistencies regarding treatment that occurs inside the detention centers as part of the contingency that the country is suffering due to the pandemic that has already left 93 infections in the territory.”

“In the Palogordo and Chimitá prisons in Santander and Norte de Santander, respectively, the inmates reported that they do not have basic cleaning and personal hygiene implements, such as soap, antibacterial gel, face masks, among others. This is added to the lack of drinking water service [now restricted to 5 minutes three times a day].”

“For the Committee, ‘these situations make people incarcerated in prison structures in the country especially vulnerable, since the sanitary control of a possible contagion is not in their hands but is the responsibility of the prison staff.’”

Riot at La Modelo prison in Bogota

Now Reuters reports, “A prison riot in Colombia’s capital Bogota late on Saturday [March 21] left 23 prisoners dead and 83 injured, the justice minister said on Sunday [March 22], as detainees protested sanitary conditions amid the global outbreak of coronavirus.”

Following this news, COSPACC tweeted, “The prison crisis in Colombia is serious and people deprived of liberty have rights. We demand that their requests be met and that the government take real measures for this vulnerable population.”

The Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project accompanies both the CSPP and COSPACC, the Social Corporation for Community Advice and Training Service.

Human rights defenders now in jail

CSPP and COSPACC have previously raised concerns about the arrest of eight human rights defenders who challenged the impacts of Toronto-based Frontera Energy on the community of San Luis de Palenque, which is located north-east of Bogota. Three of those community leaders remain in prison at this time.

Peace Brigades International accompanies other human rights groups that defend the rights of political prisoners in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, including:

– Q’eqchi’ leader Bernardo Caal Xol of the Peaceful Resistance of Cahabón who was criminalized for opposing hydroelectric dams that lack free, prior and informed consent;

–  Agustín Ramírez and Timoteo Súchite de Rosa of Nuevo Dia criminalized for opposing a hydroelectric dam in the municipality of Jocoteco;

Eduardo Bin Poou criminalized for opposing the open-pit Fenix nickel mine (first developed by Toronto-based Inco) for the harm it caused Lake Izabal;

– the Guapinol water defenders criminalized for opposing the Inversiones Los Pinares mine for harming the Guapinol River, the source of drinking water for about 42,000 people;

the Cerezo Committee, which was formed after brothers Alejandro, Héctor and Antonio Cerezo were imprisoned in maximum-security penitentiaries in Mexico.

Human rights protections

The Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, affirms, “Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and other covenants.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned, “An outbreak of COVID-19 in prison could be devastating to the population there, especially an overcrowded prison where general health is already low.”

Calls for political prisoners and low-risk offenders to be released

The Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC/USA) and others have requested the revocation of the preventive detention measure faced by defenders of Guapinol and the San Pedro sector in the context of the health emergency caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Furthermore, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1949, the union that represents Legal Aid lawyers and administrative staff in Saskatchewan, has asked the Canadian government and the provincial government to release as many inmates as possible from jails and prisons to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Independent has also reported that the former Chief Inspector of Prisons in the United Kingdom has stated that low-risk prisoners should be freed so that prisons do not become “incubators” for coronavirus.

Some of this is already happening in the United States. The Wall Street Journal has reported, “Local governments across the U.S. are releasing thousands of inmates in an unprecedented effort to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in crowded jails and prisons. Jails in California, New York, Ohio, Texas and at least a dozen other states are sending low-level offenders and elderly or sickly inmates home early due to coronavirus fears.”

For additional context, please see the PBI-Mexico publication Human Rights Defenders Behind Bars (2010). Photo from the PBI-Mexico publication: Members of the Comité Cerezo accompanied by PBI on the 16th of February, 2009, the day Héctor and Antonio Cerezo were released from prison.

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