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FIDH calls for immediate release of jailed human rights defenders amidst COVID-19 pandemic

In light of the serious threat posed to prisoners by the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, FIDH and its undersigned member organisations recall governments' obligation to ensure the safety and health of detained individuals that are under their responsibility, and launch a campaign, #ForFreedom, to call for the release of all jailed human rights defenders (HRDs).

As the spread of COVID-19 poses an unprecedented threat, the need to release HRDs is more urgent than ever. Our rights and those who defend them must not become a casualty of this pandemic. FIDH and its undersigned member organisations are launching today a new global campaign #ForFreedom for the release of all HRDs detained worldwide. They should be freed and allowed to conduct their legitimate activities to defend the rights of individuals against injustice, discrimination, violence, and other forms of human rights violations.

"Hundreds of people all over the world are imprisoned not because they committed a crime, but because of their work to defend human rights. As legitimate actors of change, they should never have been detained in the first place," declared Alice Mogwe, FIDH President. "As COVID-19 continues its rapid spread across the globe, it is time for governments to put an end to this injustice and release those who fight to uphold human rights," she added.

As stated by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, "Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views." This concerns minors, migrants, refugees, political opponents, journalists, and HRDs.

The campaign website profiles imprisoned HRDs, including Loujain Al-Hathloul (Saudi Arabia); Azimjan Askarov (Kyrgyzstan); Sevda Özbingöl Çelik and Hasan Ceylan (Turkey); Yuri Dmitriev (Russia); Leila de Lima (Philippines); Pablo Lopez Alavez (Mexico); Khalil Maatouk (Syria); Narges Mohammadi (Iran); Miyan Abdul Qayoom (India); Nabeel Rajab (Bahrain); Germain Rukuki (Burundi); Patrick Zaki (Egypt). The website will be regularly updated with additional arbitrarily detained HRDs.

The urgency of the current health crisis presents authorities with an opportunity to redress the unjust deprivation of liberty of all these individuals, many of whom are incarcerated in deplorable sanitary conditions and are denied adequate health care.

In such a context, FIDH and its undersigned member organisations more generally call on governments to relieve congestion in prisons by releasing vast numbers of prisoners on a temporary, permanent or conditional basis for public health reasons. Along with human rights defenders, priority should be given to the elderly, children, those with health conditions, prisoners of conscience, prisoners detained for expressing their opinions, administrative detainees, prisoners detained for minor or non-violent offences, untried detainees, and individuals held in immigration detention centres.

In times of crisis, governments have an obligation to protect those who are most vulnerable. Prison populations, confined to detention facilities that can easily become virus hotspots, are among those most vulnerable to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a particular risk in countries where minimum standards for detention conditions are not met, overcrowding is the norm, and social distancing is impossible to achieve. The spread of the virus in places of detention will be inevitable unless urgent measures are taken to mitigate this risk. Otherwise, incarceration could be equivalent to a death sentence for many detainees who contract, or are at risk of contracting, the COVID-19 virus.

Such measures would be consistent with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (revised and adopted as the "Nelson Mandela Rules"), which detail measures aimed at ensuring adequate personal hygiene, health, and safety of prisoners, as well as the specific advice issued by the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture.

We welcome the move by a number of countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Senegal and Bahrain, to begin releasing prisoners in an effort to reduce overcrowding and prevent the spread of the virus. We urge these and other countries to include HRDs among those who should be released immediately. Many countries have excluded prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offences from the release, thus penalising HRDs unjustly criminalised on trumped-up terrorism charges. HRDs should be exempt from such blanket disqualifications as their human rights work must not be conflated with terrorism.

The joint statement is signed by FIDH and 86 other organizations from around the world, including, from Thailand, iLaw, the Manushya Foundation, and the Union for Civil Liberty (UCL).