Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the human rights activism has become difficult, especially with governments implementing new restrictions on the freedom of assembly and the freedom of movement. As stated by Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur, “The pandemic has increased the risks human rights defenders face as they work to protect the rights of others”.
Human rights defenders (HRDs) around the world usually work in extremely difficult conditions marked by threats, restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly, judicial harassment, ongoing travel bans, and arbitrary arrests. Even though they are used to working in unstable environments, one should not ignore the impact of Covid-19 on the safety and work of human rights defenders.
In March 2020, the UN human rights experts urged governments to not take advantage of the current crisis to target human rights defenders. As experts said, “emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders”.
In Bahrain, the King issued a decree granting pardons for nearly a thousand prisoners “for humanitarian reasons”, yet numerous human rights defenders, including Nabeel Rajab, were among those who remain in unsanitary prisons. The Bahraini government has recognized that prison conditions enable the quick spread of Covid-19 and has subsequently released large numbers of prisoners, but HRDs remain behind bars.
On 6 April 2020, the Bahrain Center for human Rights (BCHR) along with 19 human rights organizations called on the Bahraini Government to release all political prisoners. Furthermore, these organizations have expressed their concern over the lack of medical care and the denial of treatment in Bahraini prisons. This has endangered the health of some prisoners with chronic medical conditions, who may now be at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
Hassan Mushaima has diabetes, gout, heart and prostate problems, and is also in remission for cancer, and Dr Abdel-Jalil al-Singace has post-polio syndrome and uses a wheelchair. Prison authorities have routinely failed to take them to appointments due to their refusal to submit to wearing humiliating shackles during transfers.
“Amid this global crisis, the negligence od treatment and the lack of adequate sanitation compound the risk of the virus spreading inside the overcrowded Bahraini prisons”, said Nedal Al-Salman, Acting President of BCHR, and Vice-president of the “International Federation for Human Rights” (FIDH).
Therefore, BCHR calls on the Bahraini government to release human rights defenders, and all detainees who were imprisoned for simply expressing themselves or exercising their rights to freedom of expression. In addition, prisoners who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 should be considered for early release, parole, or alternative non-custodial measures.