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COVID-19 Threatens Indonesia’s Overcrowded Prisons

Release Wrongfully Detained Prisoners, Seek Alternatives for At-Risk Detainees

An Indonesian Red Cross worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant at a prison in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, March 23, 2020. © 2020 Agvi Firdaus/SIPA via AP Images

As the Indonesian government battles the COVID-19 outbreak – calling on Indonesians to respect physical distancing, closing schools and offices, even emptying the streets – a Jakarta court has continued to hold weekly trial sessions of six West Papuan activists charged with “treason.”

The 5 men and 1 woman, along with more than 50 other activists in separate trials nationwide, were caught up in a government crackdown following Papuan protests in August 2019 and are being held for peaceful acts of free expression.

Indonesia is now facing a surge in coronavirus cases. The Health Ministry recorded 1,414 coronavirus cases with 122 deaths on March 30. The data undoubtedly understates the scale of infections because of a low rate of testing, and least 10 doctors have died battling the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Indonesian prisons and detention centers are bursting at the seams. As of March 23, the country’s prisons and detention centers held almost 270,000 inmates, more than double the total capacity.

The Indonesian authorities should take steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 in its overcrowded prisons. First is to immediately release all those wrongfully held behind bars, including all Papua political prisoners.

The Ministry of Law and Human Rights, which manages prisons, should also look at alternatives to custody or consider early releases or parole for detainees who are near the end of their prison terms or who pose little security risk, such as those imprisoned for unpaid fines. Those with underlying health conditions and older people at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus should be given priority.

The United Development Party, a member of the ruling coalition, already asked the government to release drug users and small-time drug sellers as well as other minor case prisoners, especially in overcrowded prisons. The Ministry of Law and Human Rights should provide appropriate information on hygiene and supplies and ensure all areas accessible to prisoners, prison staff, and visitors are disinfected regularly.

The government ought to develop plans for housing prisoners exposed to the virus in individual medical isolation. Indonesia’s government should also drop unnecessary trials prosecuting peaceful Papuan activists, like the one in Jakarta.

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