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Doha Skyline, Qatar.  © 2018 Šarūnas Burdulis

UPDATE: On May 19, 2020, in response to this report, Qatar’s Government Communications Office (GCO) issued a statement confirming the presence of the virus in its central jail. Denying prisoner statements referenced in Human Rights Watch’s report, the GCO statement said that inmates had, since mid-March, undergone regular health check-ups and that a proactive testing program had been carried out to monitor for new cases. The statement did not address reports of overcrowding in the prison, which makes practicing social distancing measures impossible. 

(Beirut) – Qatar prison authorities should take urgent measures to better protect prisoners and prison staff amid an apparent Covid-19 outbreak in the Doha central prison, Human Rights Watch said today.

Qatar’s authorities should reduce prison populations to allow for social distancing and ensure that everyone in prison has access to information and adequate medical care. The authorities should also put in place appropriate hygiene and cleaning protocols, including providing training and supplies such as masks, sanitizers, and gloves to reduce risk of further infection.

Satellite image of the Penal and Correctional Institutions Department in Doha, where Qatar’s only central prison is located. © 2020 Google, Imagery © 2020 TerraMetrics

“Qatari authorities should move quickly to avoid wider spread of coronavirus that risks infecting prisoners, prison staff, and Doha residents,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Qatar can start by releasing vulnerable prisoners such as older people and those held for low-level or nonviolent offenses and by ensuring that the remaining prisoners have adequate access to medical care.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed six foreign detainees in recent days. They described a deterioration in prison conditions in Qatar’s only central prison in Doha after several prisoners were suspected of having contracted the virus. The detainees said that guards informally told them in recent weeks about the suspected outbreak, though Qatari authorities have not publicly confirmed it. 

The authorities sealed and isolated the block where the suspected outbreak occurred, but not before transferring some detainees from that block to other already-overcrowded and unsanitary sections of the prison. They said that the prison authorities also further restricted prisoners’ limited access to basic medical care, leaving older prisoners and prisoners with underlying health conditions at even higher risk of serious consequences if infected.

Prison authorities have given inconsistent and incomplete information to prisoners. A prisoner said that on May 2, 2020 a prison guard informed inmates that five prisoners in another block had contracted the virus, causing panic. “Since then more prisoners, possibly many who are infected, have come to our block,” the prisoner said. “We have beds for 96 people, and now we have around 150 prisoners in this block.” On May 6, the prisoner said, another prison guard told him that 47 cases had been recorded by then.

The prisoners said that their block has only eight bathrooms for 150 prisoners. “People are sleeping on the floor, in the [prison] mosque, in the library; and everyone is scared of each other, we don’t know who could infect us,” the prisoner said. “At a time when we should be isolated from each other, we are being kept like animals in a shed.” The other prisoners corroborated his report of overcrowding.

Prisoners said that over the previous week guards and prison staff started to wear masks and gloves and that medical staff had stopped visiting their block. “No one knows who could be sick,” said one prisoner. “This one person has [what appears to be] the flu in our block, but is it flu, is it virus, who knows? No one is checking. Until May, nurses used to come and check us and if we were sick and wanted to go to the hospital we could go, now there are no nurses and no hospital visits.

Another prisoner said: “The nurses who used to come and give insulin shots to patients with diabetes no longer come, the guards hand out the insulin injections and the patients inject themselves.”

The prisoners said that they have limited access to soap and water, have not received hand sanitizer, and that social distancing measures are impossible, given the crowding. Two said that as of May 7, they were all handed two masks each. One prisoner said that prison authorities have yet to sanitize their blocks and continue to provide only one bar of soap per month to each prisoner despite the need for better cleaning and hygiene protocols during the pandemic.

“Yesterday the guards gave me two masks for the first time,” one prisoner said on May 8. “They said wear them, but no one is wearing them. Most prisoners just put them away and the guards don’t really care, they aren’t telling anyone to wear them.” He said the administration has not officially confirmed to them the presence of the virus in the prison or communicated recent changes to them in a clear and transparent manner, causing increased fear and anxiety among the inmates.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Qatar continues to increase, with 1,733 cases recorded on May 14, the highest number recorded in the country in a single day.

Governments should reduce their prison populations through early release of low-risk detainees, including those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified, Human Rights Watch said.

Prisoners at high risk of serious effects from the virus, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for release, taking into consideration whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health, including access to adequate treatment, and such factors as the gravity of the crime and time served. Prison authorities should publicly disclose their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in their facilities and the steps they will take to contain the infection and protect prisoners, staff, and visitors.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a March 25 news release that governments need to prevent foreseeable threats to public health and have a particular duty to protect the physical and mental health of prisoners, calling on them to reduce detainee populations as part of overall efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bachelet said that “Covid-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centres … and risks rampaging through such institutions’ extremely vulnerable populations.” She described the “potentially catastrophic” consequences of neglecting the duty to protect the health of people in custody and urged governments to “act now to prevent further loss of life among detainees and staff.”

“The reported spread of Covid-19 in Qatar’s central jail could fast become a public health disaster,” Page said. “Qatari authorities have the power to reduce the harm, but they need to act quickly and decisively.” 

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