On May 13 Thailand released data of record increase in Covid cases, but perhaps even more worrying was the fact that over half of the new cases were reported  from two prisons located in Bangkok which also house quite a few political prisoners who had been arrested mainly for their protests against the government and the monarchy.

This is just one of the many recently reported instances of very serious health conditions in many prisons in various countries in Covid times as there is invariably overcrowding in prisons , hygiene conditions are poor and possibilities of maintaining physical distancing are very less. So while there is concern for the  health of all prisoners and jail workers as well, there is special concern for political prisoners as many of them have been struggling for democracy and for getting justice for exploited people. These political prisoners include civil rights activists, public spirited lawyers, media persons, even senior academics, among others. There are several women, students and elderly people among political persons, as well as those already suffering from serious health problems and even disabilities.

Following the spread of COVID-19, there is a strong demand for decongesting prisons and release of some prisoners for this purpose. While selecting the prisoners who deserve priority for release, there is a very strong case on democratic grounds for prisoners who have been arrested for political dissent, in several cases merely for exercising their right to free expression. There have been several strong pleas in recent times for release of political prisoners.

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has noted that prisoners living in congested conditions are prone to coronavirus infection and as there is a strong case for decongesting overcrowded prisons– “ more than ever before, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”

Covid-19 threat has emerged as a very serious concern in many ways and at various levels.In March 2020 a jailbreak attempt in Colombia’s capital city Bogota caused, according to official sources, the death of 23 inmates and injuries to 83 people. It is widely believed that concerns over Covid infections were responsible at least to some extent for the desperate efforts here and elsewhere in this country for jail-break .

Escape of a large number of prisoners has been reported from other places like Sao Paulo, while in other places  there were big protests against stopping of jail visits due to coronavirus related factors. In such conditions of growing desperation it is much better that a regulated release takes place officially , particularly keeping in view also the justice-based and democratic need for release of those who are in prison not for any crime or violence but mainly for political dissent and victimization based on this.

Iran had 300,000 prisoners and overcrowded prison conditions and a significantly  large number of political prisoners as well. Release of some prisoners was ordered, but it is not clear how many of these were political prisoners.  There has been  a strong campaign also for the release of Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic detained in Iran.

Turkey has a very large number of political prisoners. In the wake of the spread of Covid infections there was release of several prisoners. It has prepared for the release of a significant number of prisoners. However  Amnesty International and other human rights organizations  have specifically demanded that many highly deserving political prisoners should be included in this release. There is a serious concern that political prisoners are not getting much-deserved priority while release is planned and in fact are being excluded.

In the Philippines the campaign for the release of political prisoners is being stepped up in the wake of the spread of the covid threat. In 2020 out of the nearly 610 political prisoners here, 102 were reported to be ill and 48 were elderly persons.  Karapatan human rights organization has been active for release of political prisoners, along with friends and family members of political prisoners. In a recent statement Karapatan has said, “ the political prisoners, especially the elderly, sick with chronic disability or terminal conditions, pregnant and nursing mothers, those who are due for parole or pardon, at least one spouse each of political prisoner couples, accidental victims of political arrests should be released immediately on humanitarian grounds.”  In March this year ( 2021), there was a special campaign for the release of women peasant activists and leaders who have been jailed in this country and nearly 78 such women political prisoners were identified.

In India , following the spread of covid threat, the Supreme Court directed all states and union territories on March 16 2020 to submit written replies on steps being taken to check the spread of the pandemic among prisoners and juveniles. The Allahabad high court  ordered the release of a significant number of  prisoners.   Steps for such action have been reported also from Delhi’s Tihar Jail. The releases are likely to be on the basis of parole, bail or furlough. However there has been no news yet whether priority will be given to political prisoners at the time of selection of to-be-released prisoners. Hence a special campaign is needed to highlight the need for giving top priority to political prisoners at the time of selecting prisoners for release, in India as well in other countries, as there are strong justice-related and democratic grounds for such prioritization.

This is all the more necessary as there has been widespread resentment in the country in recent times  over arbitrary arrests of several eminent persons known for their dissenting beliefs and views. We cannot forget that in the course of our freedom struggle  very great sacrifices were made for protecting the rights of political prisoners. At the time of their imprisonment most famous freedom fighters like Shahid Bhagat  Singh and his close colleagues fasted for several months so that rights of political prisoners can be asserted and protected.

A campaign for release of political prisoners is needed at national as well as global level and this is likely to get more than normal support in these extraordinary times.

To check overcrowding and also on grounds for justice, there is also need for considering the release of those under-trials who are likely to have been innocent, whose conduct has been exceptionally good and who have already completed a big part of the jail sentence as related to the nature of their alleged offence. Of course the due cautions also need to be exercised, as also the fact that some of the poorer under-trials may not immediately find a place where they can go easily on being released in Covid times.

Bharat Dogra is a  journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and Protecting Earth for Children.


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