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Governments must release innocent 'prisoners of conscience' around the world immediately as prisons become COVID-19 hotspots

Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 38 years and six months in prison as well as 148 lashes after two grossly unfair trials

Amnesty is campaigning for the release of 150 individuals detained for peacefully exercising their human rights - but warns there are likely thousands more in same situation

Prisons becoming COVID-19 hotspots thanks to cramped and unsanitary conditions – as well as epicentres of violence with coronavirus-related riots

‘Authorities should not waste another minute deliberating whether [prisoners of conscience] are a danger to society’ - Kate Allen

Amnesty International is calling for the immediate release of prisoners of conscience worldwide, especially now they are at heightened risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amnesty is campaigning for the release of some 150 prisoners of conscience – individuals who are detained solely for peacefully exercising their human rights - but there are likely thousands more innocent people in the same situation. 

These alleged “criminals” may have peacefully campaigned for legislative change within their country, spoken out against human rights violations or worked towards greater equality for people within their society - quite simply, they refused to keep quiet. 

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said: 

“Governments around the world must take urgent action to release prisoners of conscience - people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place. As media reports from around the world reveal how prisons are becoming COVID-19 hotspots thanks to cramped and unsanitary conditions – as well as epicentres of violence with coronavirus-related riots -  authorities should not waste another minute deliberating whether these people are a danger to society. 

“Countries across the globe have released many prisoners who they have defined as ‘low risk’ or are coming to the end of their sentence, yet far too many prisoners of conscience remain behind bars. These people never warranted jail - they were confined for peacefully exercising their human rights.”

Trapped and at serious risk

The prisoners of conscience Amnesty is campaigning on behalf of include:

  • Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer, was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 38 years and six months in prison as well as 148 lashes after two grossly unfair trials. The charges against her relate to her opposition to forced veiling laws, including “inciting corruption and prostitution” and “openly committing a sinful act…by appearing in public without a hijab”; as well as her activism against the death penalty.
  • The Tehran Three - otherwise known as Monireh, Yasaman and Mojgan - handed out flowers to female passengers on a metro train in Tehran last year. The unveiled women were filmed sharing their hopes for women in Iran on International Women’s Day. Just days after the video went viral, they were charged with sham offences including “inciting prostitution” and were handed a 42-year sentence between them.
  • Loujain al-Hathloul and Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were arrested after successfully campaigning for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia in 2018. According to testimonies, including from these women, a total of 10 human rights defenders were tortured and sexually abused during their first three months of detention, when they were held in an informal detention facility in an unknown location. 
  • Ahmed Mansor is a blogger, a poet and a prominent human rights defender. Ahmed has documented the human rights situation in UAE since 2006, and up until his arrest in 2017 he was one of the only voices still speaking out against human rights violations inside the country. Ahmed was sentenced to 10 years in prison and given a fine of 1,000,000 AED (GBP £210,700). He is held in solitary confinement and continues to be denied a mattress to sleep on. Last year he began a hunger strike to protest his conditions after prison guards beat him.
  • Rubén González, a Venezuelan trade unionist, was arrested in 2018 after peacefully protesting and advocating for labour rights for workers at a state-owned mining company. He was accused of attacking a military officer and sentenced to five years and nine months after trial by a military court. He is already in poor health suffering from renal failure and hypertension.
  • Emir-Usein Kuku, a Crimean Tatar, has been imprisoned since 2016. He has investigated and denounced human rights violations taking place under the Russian Federation’s ongoing occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Last November a Russian military court found him and five co-defendants guilty on trumped up terror-related charges and were sentenced to between seven and 19 years. 
  • Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, has been in jail for the past 10 years on fabricated charges in retaliation for his human rights work in Kyrgyzstan. Azimjan was convicted and sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of participating in mass disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred, and complicity in the murder of a police officer who had been killed during the unrest. He will turn 69-year-old this month and suffers from cardiac and respiratory conditions that have gravely deteriorated in prison. 
  • Khalil Ma’touq is a human rights lawyer and the director of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research who has defended hundreds of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Syria. He was arrested at a security checkpoint while on his way to Damascus and has not been seen or heard of since 2012. Syrian authorities have refused to provide information about him but released detainees report having seen him in detention.
  • Jaber Alboshokeh and Mokhtar Alboshoke are among scores of Ahwazi Arab prisoners who require medical care for injuries caused by beatings and shots fired by security forces during the violent repression of protests that erupted in their prison last month over the authorities’ failure to address COVID-19 concerns. Ahwazi Arabs in Iran often face state discrimination. Jaber and Mokhtar were imprisoned after being found guilty of being linked to a terrorist organisation and involvement in shootings that authorities say occurred in the Khuzestan province. There is no evidence this was the case.

Prisons and COVID-19: A wider problem of human rights

In addition to freeing prisoners of conscience, Amnesty is calling on governments to take steps to curb the spread of the pandemic, including by decongesting prisons. Amnesty is increasingly concerned by overcrowded prisons and detention centres across the world – disturbing images emerging from prisons in El Salvador and Lebanon reveal inmates being held in demeaning and dangerous conditions.

The authorities should also review cases of people in pre-trial detention as well as children, and consider the early, temporary or conditional release of people at particular risk, such as older people and those with underlying medical conditions. 

The organisation is also urging governments to provide a standard of healthcare for people that remain in prison that meets each person's individual needs, similar to what is available in the community, and that it ensures the maximum possible protection against the spread of COVID-19. Prison staff and inmates must also be provided with proper protective equipment.

For more information relating to our work on COVID-19, click here.

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