COVID-19: A Dual Punishment for Palestinian and Arab Prisoners

More than 150 personalities from the Arab world call for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and prisoners of conscience in the Arab world. Among the signatories are the Tunisian and Moroccan academics Yadh Ben Achour and Abdullah Hammoudi, the Jordanian and Egyptian writers Ibrahim Nasrallah and Ahmed Nagy, the Tunisian composer and oud player Anouar Brahem, the Lebanese singer Oumeima El Khalil and Palestinian actor Salah Bakri, the Lebanese and Egyptian journalists Pierre Abi Saab and Khaled Al-Balshi, the Palestinian politicians Hanan Ashrawi and Nabil Shaath, and the Palestinian and Tunisian human rights defenders Omar Barghouti and Mokhtar Trifi.

In this time of quarantine, we have come to appreciate the importance of freedom to humanity, and we are cognizant of the tragedy in losing our freedom of movement, prevented from seeing and embracing our loved ones (and even saying our last farewells). This tragedy is suffered daily by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli cells, as well as prisoners of conscience in the Arab world. But, unlike the quarantine that we experience, which has no bars or barriers, prison is used as a weapon against men, women, and children whose only fault is the defense of human rights. It is a weapon that the Israeli occupation has used for decades to break the will of Palestinians protecting their inalienable rights, but it has encountered their resilience in the face of occupation and apartheid. It is also the weapon used by corrupt regimes in the Arab world to silence any opposition, even mere criticism.

Amid the pandemic, imprisonment becomes a double punishment: the deprivation of liberty and basic rights, as well as the possibility of becoming infected with the highly contagious coronavirus. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli cells and prisoners of conscience in the Arab world live in close quarters in overcrowded cells with minimal health and safety precautions. Throughout the Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq by way of Egypt (perhaps with the exception of Tunisia), thousands of political prisoners are held in conditions that exacerbate the spread of infection.

At the beginning of the year, there were about 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli cells, 431 of them in administrative detention (with no charge or sentence); of these, 194 are minors, and 30 are under the age of sixteen. Forty-three are women, and six are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. A few Palestinian prisoners who were sick have called upon human rights organizations and the free people of the world, declaring: “We demand the implementation of what remains of our rights. We are under the daily threat of disease, yet no tangible or preventive measures have been taken to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and stop the virus from spreading… Do not let us perish in our cell beds without anyone having lifted a single finger to protect us or prevent our death.”

On April 17, 2020, the International Day of Palestinian Prisoners, Palestinian civil society and Palestinian rights organizations launched an urgent appeal for the immediate release of Palestinian prisoners and detainees, especially for the most vulnerable (like those suffering from chronic illnesses), in order to ensure their right to life and safety. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also called for the protection of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Ramy Shaath, Egyptian-Palestinian human rights defender and coordinator of the movement for the boycott of lsrael (BDS) in Egypt, symbolizes the community of fate between Palestinian prisoners and political prisoners in the Arab world; ten months after his detention, he remains in the notorious Tora prison. On April 17, 2020, an Egyptian court issued a ruling—in absentia, without the presence of attorneys, and with no justification—that places Shaath and twelve others (including Zyad El-Elaimy, ex-parliamentarian and a prominent actor in the 2011 revolution) on Egypt’s terrorist entities list, curtailing their rights. Civil society organizations and political parties in Egypt have issued a joint statement condemning the inclusion of Zyad El-Elaimy and Ramy Shaath on the “terrorist entities list” and calling on the Egyptian government to immediately release them, to remove their names from the list, to drop all investigations again them, and to stop a series of injustices and violations of their rights. President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi has utilized arrest, detention, and torture to suffocate any dissenting voices, as is evident in the 60,000 political prisoners that rights groups have accounted for in Egyptian prisons.

On Wednesday, March 25, 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called for the urgent release of detainees worldwide as a measure to prevent the crisis that coronavirus will cause in overcrowded prisons. Israel has deafened its ears to the call, and its security forces have arrested 2,017 Palestinians between early March and April 3 of this year, including sixteen children. Human rights organizations have also called on Arab governments to immediately and unconditionally release all detained human rights defenders held for the peaceful expression of their opinions. Although some governments have announced the release of prisoners and carried out some releases, these have not extended to political prisoners.

We demand the immediate and unconditional release of all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails and all political prisoners in the Arab world. We hold the ruling apartheid regime in Palestine and the repressive regimes in the region responsible for the health of these prisoners and the preservation of their inalienable rights to life.