Release Political Prisoners Now

Bharat Dogra

Following the spread of COVID-19, there is a strong demand for decongesting prisons and release of some prisoners for this purpose. While selecting the prisoners who deserve priority for release, there is a very strong case on democratic grounds for prisoners who have been arrested for political dissent, in several cases merely for exercising their right to free expression. There have been several strong pleas in recent times for release of political prisoners.

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has noted that prisoners living in congested conditions are prone to coronavirus infection and as there is a strong case for decongesting overcrowded prisons “ more than ever before, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”

Coronavirus threat has emerged as a very serious concern for those monitoring conditions of prisoners. In March a jailbreak attempt in Colombia’s capital city Bogota caused, according to official sources, the death of 23 inmates and injuries to 83 people. It is widely believed that concerns over coronavirus infections were responsible at least to some extent for the desperate efforts here and elsewhere in this country for jailbreak. Escape of a large number of prisoners has been reported from other places like Sao Paulo, while in other places there were big protests against stopping of visits due to coronavirus related factors. In such conditions of growing desperation, it is much better that a regulated release takes place officially, particularly keeping in view also the justice-based and democratic need for release of those who are in prison not for any crime or violence but mainly for political dissent and victimization based on this.

Iran has 300,000 prisoners and overcrowded prison conditions and a large number of political prisoners. A release of 90.000 prisoners is now on agenda. This is likely to include at least some political prisoners, although a clear picture has not emerged yet. While some are being released temporarily, a pardon and permanent release is on the cards for several others. Iran has many political prisoners.  There has been a strong campaign also for the release of Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic detained in Iran.

Turkey has a very large number of political prisoners. In the wake of the spread of coronavirus infections it has prepared for the release of a large number of prisoners. There are plans to release nearly 90000 out of a total of around 189500 prisoners. Nearly half of the releases may be permanent releases.

However, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have specifically demanded that many highly deserving political prisoners should be included in this release. There is a serious concern that political prisoners are not getting much-deserved priority while release is planned and in fact are being excluded.

In the Philippines the campaign for the release of political prisoners is being stepped up in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus threat. Out of the nearly 610 political prisoners here, 102 are reported to be ill and 48 are elderly persons.  Karapatan human rights organization has been active for this, along with friends and family members of political prisoners. In a recent statement Karapatan has said, “ the political prisoners, especially the elderly, sick with chronic disability or terminal conditions, pregnant and nursing mothers, those who are due for parole or pardon, at least one spouse each of political prisoner couples, accidental victims of political arrests should be released immediately on humanitarian grounds.” 

In India, following the spread of coronavirus threat, the Supreme Court directed all states and union territories on March 16 to submit written replies on steps being taken to check the spread of the pandemic among prisoners and juveniles. The Allahabad high court has ordered the release of a significant number of prisoners. This is also on the cards in Maharashtra.  Steps for such action have been reported also from Delhi’s Tihar Jail. The releases are likely to be on the basis of parole, bail or furlough. However there has been no news yet whether priority will be given to political prisoners at the time of selection of to-be-released prisoners. Hence a special campaign is needed to high light the need for giving top priority to political prisoners at the time of selecting prisoners for release, in India as well in other countries, as there are strong justice-related and democratic grounds for such prioritization.

This is all the more necessary as there has been widespread resentment in the country in recent times over arbitrary arrests of several eminent persons known for their dissenting beliefs and views.

A campaign for release of political prisoners is needed at national as well as global level and this is likely to get more than normal support in these extraordinary times.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.  

Back to Home Page

Apr 9, 2020

Bharat Dogra

Your Comment if any