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.
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.
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.