The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pandemic threatens imprisoned dissidents and journalists everywhere. They must be freed.

Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, now imprisoned in Iran, in San Francisco in 2006.
Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, now imprisoned in Iran, in San Francisco in 2006. (Handout/Reuters)

PRISONS ARE fecund incubators for coronavirus — people in tight proximity, surfaces easily contaminated, closed internal spaces, poor hygiene and lack of medicines. For those around the world who have been thrown into jails for their beliefs, the pandemic could become a death sentence. Prisoners everywhere must be protected from the virus on humanitarian grounds, and political prisoners ought to be freed now so they do not die for their words and convictions.

Journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, recently released from prison in Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev has systematically imprisoned those critical of his regime, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he was incarcerated in an old barracks, with inmates sleeping on bunks, no hot water, and family visits — the only source of food and medicine — suspended indefinitely. “If anybody catches . . . coronavirus, every prisoner will have it,” he said. “I am afraid inmates are facing death if the epidemic makes its way to prisons.”

In Turkey, about 180 journalists remain in jail who were arrested after the July 2016 failed coup attempt, which prompted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to launch a wide-ranging purge against his perceived enemies, using charges of terrorism and other crimes to throw them into pretrial detention, where many remain. While Turkey is considering a law to release prisoners, many of the jurists, human rights defenders and journalists seized after the failed coup may not be included. Meanwhile, Turkey continues arresting people for social media posts about the pandemic.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

In Egypt, a U.S. citizen, Mustafa Kassem, died in prison two months ago on a hunger strike after more than six years of unconscionable mistreatment. There are still at least three U.S. citizens and two permanent residents of the United States stuck in Egyptian prisons because of their political views, including Reem Mohamed Desouky, whose alleged crime was criticizing the Egyptian government on Facebook. She should be freed, along with Khaled Hassan, Mohammed al-Amasha, Ola Qaradawi and Hossam Khalaf.

In Kyrgyzstan, journalist Azimjon Askarov is ill. Let him go. Iran must release Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, held for more than four years in Evin prison. In Russia, the political prisoners include 26 Jehovah’s Witnesses in pretrial detention and eight in penal colonies. They should not face a covid-19 death sentence for their religious beliefs. In Venezuela, the “Citgo 6” have been recently moved from house arrest to prison. They are six oil company executives — five U.S. citizens and one permanent resident — arrested and detained in 2017. They must be released.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

China has trumpeted its success in containing the virus, but its jails hold hundreds of political prisoners who could be at risk; 1 million ethnic Uighur Muslims and others have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang province. A pandemic threatens them all.

Imprisoned dissidents, rights defenders and journalists everywhere should not be left to the ravages of the virus in fetid prisons for having had the courage to speak the truth.

Read more:

Mohamed Soltan: Don’t forget our loved ones, trapped in Egyptian prisons during this pandemic

The Post’s View: A U.S. citizen died while imprisoned by the regime of Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’

Vladimir Kara-Murza: A political prisoner in Russia gains his freedom. Too many others are still waiting.

The Post’s View: A jailed Cuban activist is in grave danger. He must be released.

Jonathan Capehart: Trump and governors can slow the spread of covid-19 in prisons and jails

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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