Syria slow to free prisoners despite coronavirus risk in crowded jails – rights groups

A man sits near a coronavirus awareness billboard, during a lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Damascus, Syria, April 4, 2020. Picture taken April 4, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 07 April 2020

Syria slow to free prisoners despite coronavirus risk in crowded jails – rights groups

  • Only a few 100 among tens of thousands freed -activists
  • Syria’s jails, war-hit health system vulnerable to virus

AMMAN: Syria is dragging its feet on releasing prisoners under an amnesty declared by President Bashar Assad, raising fears of mass infections if the new coronavirus spreads through its overcrowded jails, rights groups said on Monday.
The Damascus government has confirmed only 19 cases of infection from the global pandemic, with two deaths. But with a health system ravaged by almost a decade of civil war, it is widely feared Syria will not be able to contain the coronavirus.
The United Nations envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, last week pointed to the risk of COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, racing through the country’s prisons and urged quick action to free prisoners.
An amnesty declared by Assad on March 22 expanded the range of crimes covered by an amnesty announced last September.
But human rights groups said only a few hundred people jailed for common crimes had been released so far in what they called a token gesture to deflect calls on Damascus to follow the lead of other states, including its close ally Iran, that have freed tens of thousands as the virus has swept the world.
“The Syrian regime seeks to circumvent the pressures it is facing from organizations and states that fear the spread of COVID-19 in the ranks of detainees,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), told Reuters.
He said none of those freed were civic activists or others among the tens of thousands of political prisoners detained since the outbreak of Syria’s conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Assad’s rule.

’SEVERE OVERCROWDING’
“In Syrian prisons and detention centers, COVID-19 could spread quickly due to poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and severe overcrowding,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.
Syrian state media have not reported how many prisoners have been released of late. State judges have said the aim is to ease prisoner numbers. SNHR said those released had been convicted of crimes including smuggling and forgery.
SNHR said it documented 665 arbitrary arrests, 116 deaths under torture and 232 releases since the September amnesty.
UN investigators and Western human rights activists say the Syrian authorities have arrested and tortured tens of thousands of people since the conflict began in 2011.
A UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry said in a 2018 report the whereabouts of these detainees remains unknown and unacknowledged by the state. It said these civilians “have been disappeared” and many may no longer be alive.
The Assad government denies holding prisoners of conscience and torturing detainees to death in secret security prisons.
Syria’s prisons include facilities run by security agencies that authorities deny exist, where denial of medical care is part of a widespread policy of torture, according to Sara Kayyali, Syria specialist with Human Rights Watch (HRW).
She expressed particular fear for detainees in such jails. “I won’t impose any intent on the Syrian government, but imagine you have an infected prison population of people they already want to get rid of for expressing opposition to the government?“
Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 people from jail, including political prisoners, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a judiciary spokesman said last month.
In North Africa, Tunisia has freed 1,420 prisoners and Morocco 5,654, citing efforts to stop the virus, while Algeria pardoned 5,037 but without explicitly linking its move to the pandemic.


Jordanians celebrate country’s 74th Independence Day in confident mood

Updated 4 min 38 sec ago

Jordanians celebrate country’s 74th Independence Day in confident mood

  • The festivities followed a three-day lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the killer virus in the country

AMMAN: Jordanians on Monday took to the streets to celebrate their country’s 74th Independence Day amid the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis.

The festivities followed a three-day lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the killer virus in the country, which has so far recorded 708 cases and nine deaths.

Jordan’s population of almost 10 million people, the majority of them in their youth and belonging to different backgrounds and ethnicities which pride themselves on peaceful coexistence, woke up to national flags fluttering throughout the nation as well as on the Google search home page.

The COVID-19 pandemic has instilled a sense of nationalism and unity as well as confidence in the country’s leadership that has not been felt in years.

Minister of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship Mothanna Gharaibeh told Arab News that the virus outbreak had helped to boost Jordan’s digital resilience. “During the crisis, internet traffic grew by 70 percent overnight and yet our resilient internet network was able to take it without any reduction on YouTube or Netflix quality.”

Gharaibeh, the youngest minister in Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s government, said that the private and public sectors had been working together during the COVID-19 emergency to overcome many challenges.

“From security to food delivery and online learning, thousands of Jordanians who were serving global customers continued to deliver quality services from their homes,” he added.

The minister, who was an activist during the short-lived Jordanian spring in 2011, pointed out that despite the economic difficulties caused by the lockdown there had been some positives to emerge from the situation.

“We grew by 700-plus jobs in the last two months by top companies like Cisco, Webhelp, BIGO/IMO, and others relying on the Jordanian solid infrastructure, skills, and work ethics,” he said.

Mahmoud Zawahreh, a young political activist from the city of Zarqa, told Arab News that Jordan was battling on two fronts. “The struggle is against different challenges in dealing with the coronavirus as well as the external political challenges.

“Jordan is being forced to escalate its response due to the dangers from the Israeli intentions to annex Palestinian territories while at the same time it has to deal with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Maamoun Abu Nawwar, a retired two-star air force general, said the people and leaders of Jordan had succeeded in finding a common ground as a nation. “There is a successful trilateral cooperation between the leadership, the army and the people.

“There is a close-knit atmosphere that has been recently articulated with many Jordanians returning from abroad because of the pandemic and realizing how great their country is and that it takes care of its people.”

He added that Jordan faced a difficult future and that some of its challenges were “existential” and required a holistic approach. “Jordan needs to be more inclusive to all regional neighbors to seek their help and protection from Israel.”

He believes that some of its neighbors have not risen to the challenges facing the country. “There is bitterness in Jordan regarding how much it can count on regional powers to stand with it. At times Jordan feels like it has to stand alone because it refuses to take sides in regional disputes,” Abu Nawwar said.

Tareq Khoury, the former head of the Wehdat Football Club and now a member of parliament representing Zarqa, told Arab News that independence required hard decisions including the cancellation of the Wadi Araba Treaty (Jordan-Israel peace accord).

“Independence requires fighting with the occupying enemy who is targeting our holy places and the Jordan Valley,” he said.

Khoury, a businessman who trades with regional countries, said that a much more robust economic relationship was needed.

Samar Nassar, the first female secretary-general of the Jordanian Football Association, said Jordan had been a sports pioneer in the region, championing women empowerment, and using sports for social change.

“We hosted the FIFA under-17 Women’s World Cup, which was the first international tournament of its scale in the Arab world and we hosted the 2018 women’s Asian Cup final.”