Four Reasons Middle East Governments Should Release Prisoners

The clamor to release elderly, sick, and political prisoners is growing. Dozens of NGOs and civil society organizations have urged the immediate release of prisoners because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is acute across the Middle East, where prison conditions are dangerously unhealthy already. Overcrowding is often rife, hygiene facilities poor, and access to medical care often inadequate. This week US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to release all “arbitrarily detained” Syrians and US citizens because of the virus. Pompeo should publicly call on Washington’s allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to do the same.


This week too the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, urged governments to look for ways to release “older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders,” and said, “Imprisonment should be a measure of last resort, particularly during this crisis.” And yesterday the World Health Organisation and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights jointly released guidance for governments on how to treat people in detention during the Covid19 crisis. The organizations urged governments to prioritize the release of those “with underlying health conditions … [and] those detained for offenses not recognized under international law.” WHO expert Carina Ferreira-Borges warned there is “risk of a huge mortality rate” across the word’s prison population, and that “once Covid-19 gets inside prisons, everyone will be contaminated very quickly.”


Some countries have already begun to take action. Earlier this month Iran reportedly temporarily released at least 34,000 prisoners, and Turkey is planning to release 100,000 prisoners – about a third of its total prison population. Bahrain says it has released almost 1500 prisoners. Local human rights activists say around 300 of those are political prisoners, but many more wrongly detained political prisoners remain in prison. Abduljalil al-Singace and Hassan Mushaima are peaceful dissents who were among those tortured and given life sentences in 2011. Mushaima is 71, Al Singace 57, and both suffer from serious chronic illnesses. Both remain in a Bahraini prison.


Governments considering how to respond to the crisis should listen to the world’s leading health and human rights experts, and weigh the consequences of releasing prisoners against those of keeping them in jail, and increasing the chances of rampant infections.


Reasons to release a large number of prisons include:

1. The moral argument:

This doesn’t often cut much ice with Middle Eastern dictatorships, but we know – and they know deep down – that this is the right thing to do. It’s pretty simple – keeping frail people in prison who shouldn’t be there in the first place is just wrong.


2. The legal argument:

As Human Rights First and 39 other civil society organizations publicly stated this week, “Under international human rights law, every individual has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States have an obligation to guarantee the realization of this right,” and to “ensure that detainees and prisoners are treated humanely and with respect for their dignity and not subject to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.  The Nelson Mandela Rules require equivalence in healthcare—meaning that healthcare in prisons must meet the same standards as healthcare outside of them. This does not change during a pandemic.”


3. The PR argument:

Authorities who release sick and elderly prisoners look good. It’s a humane gesture and will generate positive international media coverage. I can’t speak for all human rights organizations in the world, but some of the loudest, long-term critics of Middle Eastern governments would applaud this move. I certainly would.


4. The economic argument:

When the virus gets inside prisons it runs riot in the densely-packed population, infecting prisoners and security officials alike. There are already large outbreaks in Chinese and South Korean prisons. China has reported over 800 cases across five prisons. In Spain, at least two inmates and 37 prison workers have been infected. The more people are infected, the more expensive it is for a government to treat them. Releasing prisoners will reduce the number of cases, and the overall cost.


Sometimes the right thing to do is also the smartest thing to do. Governments should release the sick, the elderly, the frail, and those who should never have been convicted in the first place. The alternative invites catastrophe.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on March 28, 2020


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