UAE: COVID-19 outbreak puts Al Wathba prison’s detainees at risk

16 June 2020

The UAE authorities have failed to take the necessary measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak in Al Wathba prison, Abu Dhabi, putting the health and life of prisoners at serious risk. On June 12, 2020, MENA Rights Group submitted an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, expressing concerns regarding the prisoners’ lack of access to medical care and poor prison conditions.

On April 16, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 in Al Wathba prison was reported. According to local sources, over 110 inmates have tested positive thus far. Ill prisoners and those showing symptoms have not been provided with appropriate health care, and continue to be detained in dire conditions in overcrowded cells.

Testimonies collected by MENA Rights Group* have shown that since the outbreak in mid-April, several inmates who tested positive have been transferred to other cells in the prison. Since then, their families have received no news regarding said inmates’ state of health. Inmates who were previously sharing cells with those who were transferred were not tested, despite their close proximity to infected individuals.

Moreover, no precautionary measures have been taken by the prison authorities to enforce social distancing measures in cells, nor to isolate all infected prisoners from the others. Furthermore, no masks, gloves, disinfectant, or additional soap supplies have been distributed to inmates. For the past month and a half, inmates have also been forbidden to purchase water and personal hygiene tools they used to be able to buy at the shop inside the prison.

When prisoners have enquired about the lack of medical treatment and access to health care, the prison administration have stated that it is because the Emirati Ministry of Health has not provided them with appropriate treatment, or given any instructions for those infected. Furthermore, numerous inmates have been prevented from receiving phone calls from their families over the past few months.

Urgent measures must be taken by the UAE authorities

The Emirati authorities, by failing to take the appropriate measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among detainees, and failing to provide those testing positive with appropriate medical care, have violated the detainees’ right to life, health and prompt access to medical attention.

In light of the above, MENA Rights Group is extremely concerned for the welfare of detainees due to the lack of appropriate and adequate measures taken by the authorities to address the COVID-19 outbreak in Al Wathba prison.

On June 12, 2020, MENA Rights Group urged the Special Rapporteur on the right to health to call on the UAE authorities to:

  1. take the necessary measures to prevent the disease from spreading, including the distribution of masks, hand sanitizers, and other hygiene products;

  2. allow detainees to maintain family contacts and visits, as well as access to their legal legal counsel, while taking the necessary sanitary precautions;

  3. grant access to COVID-19 testing and treatment on an equal standard;

  4. provide appropriate medical care to sick detainees and transfer them to medical facilities;

  5. conduct a thorough review of the prison population and reduce the UAE prison population by ordering the immediate release of:

    • prisoners whose detention has been deemed “arbitrary” by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and those currently detained for having exercised their fundamental rights and freedoms, including human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience;

    • “low-risk” detainees and prisoners, including those convicted or held in pretrial detention (remand) for nonviolent offences; administrative detainees; and those whose continued detention is not justified;

    • detainees and prisoners particularly vulnerable to the virus, including the elderly, and individuals with serious underlying conditions including lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases.

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* MENA Rights Group has collected the testimonies of the families and lawyers of 10 detainees in Al Wathba prison, listed below.

  1. Abdullah Awad SalimAl Shamsi, an Omani national. He is suffering from a malignant tumour in his remaining kidney and was subsequently treated for cancer. On May 28, 2020, Al Shamsi tested positive for COVID-19. His mother was not officially informed, as she has been prevented from communicating with him by phone for the past nine months and denied visits for the past three months. Following the results, he and other infected detainees were isolated in another wing of the prison. However, he has not been transferred to a hospital and continues to be denied appropriate healthcare.

  2. Abdelrahman Chouman, a Lebanese national. On June 3, 2020, Chouman informed his family that he was infected with COVID-19. However, he remains in his cell with other non-infected detainees.

  3. Ahmad Sobh, a Lebanese national. On May 28, 2020, Sobh tested positive and was transferred to another cell. Since then, his family has lost communication with him and do not know where he was sent. 

  4. Abdulmalik Mohammad Ahmad MohammadAl Mukhanqi and 5. Abdullah Mohammad Ahmad Attiah, two Yemeni traders. After being prevented from contacting their families for a month, a few days ago Al Mukhanqi and Attiah were allowed to communicate with them. They were not able to give details about their conditions, but told their families they were moved to another wing due to COVID-19.

  1. Yasser Sami Abedalafou Abu Baker, and his brother, 7. Abdallah Sami Abedalafou Abu Baker, two Jordanian nationals. Over the past weeks, the two brothers have been moved to other wings of the prison four times, mixing with a variety of other inmates. During one of the transfers the police shaved their heads, alongside other inmates, with an unsterilised general shaving machine, as a form of punishment. On May28, 2020, they both tested positive for COVID-19, along with 31 other inmates out of the 43 tested.

  1. Ahmad Ali Mekkaoui, a Lebanese citizen. Al Mekkaoui has been prevented from communicating with his family since April 2019. His family is only able to receive information about him through the families of other detainees. Three inmates who share a cell with him tested positive for COVID-19 but were not put in isolation for several days. It is unknown whether Al Mekkaoui has subsequently contracted COVID-19.

  2. Bahaa Adel Salman Mattar and 10. Maher Atieh Othman Abu Shawareb, two Jordanian citizens. On May25, 2020, Mattar and Abu Shawareb both tested positive for COVID-19. Despite this, to date, they are being kept in the same cell, with other non-infected inmates. Last week, Mattar’s temperature reached 40 degrees. The only treatment he received was a sedative.

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