Prominent human rights groups have urged the government of Eritrea to “immediately and unconditionally” release political detainees held in the country’s jails amid the threat of the new coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement released on Friday, Amnesty International said “the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions” in Eritrean prisons increase chances of transmission of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Calling Eritrea a country “notorious for arbitrarily arresting or forcibly disappearing people”, the United Kingdom-based group highlighted the case of Ciham Ali Ahmed, who turned 23 on Thursday.
She has been held in a prison for eight years incommunicado after attempting to leave the country when she was 15.
According to Amnesty, Ciham Ali tried to “exercise her human rights” and flee shortly after her father, then a minister in President Isaias Aferwerki’s government, defected and went into exile.
She has not been charged with a crime nor allowed access to her lawyers or family since her arrest, Amnesty said, adding that her family “does not even know where she is being held or her state of health”.
“We join Eritrean families and activists who are extremely worried about their loved ones in calling on the Eritrean authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Ciham Ali and all others jailed simply for exercising their rights,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa.
Today is Ciham's 23 birthday, the 8th one she has spent behind bars.
Scroll to see the beautiful people who have already participated!
— One Day Seyoum (@onedayseyoum) April 3, 2020
In a separate statement on Friday, Human Rights Watch also called for the release of Ciham Ali and other political detainees.
“Given the current health crisis, adequate food, water, and medical care must be provided to detainees. But ultimately, the Eritrean government should grant Ciham and other prisoners – who shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place – unconditional release, and return them to the safety of their homes, where they can celebrate birthdays with loved ones.”
There was no immediate comment by Eritrean authorities.
Eritrea has so far recorded 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Thousands of people have been jailed in Eritrea for their political views, their work as journalists or for practising their religions, many of whom are held in poor, unsanitary conditions, according to Amnesty International.
Across Africa, more than 280 people have died from COVID-19. Experts warn fragile healthcare systems in many countries in the world’s second-most populous continent could be overwhelmed in the face of a severe outbreak.
Globally, more than one million people have tested positive for the highly infectious disease, according to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University in the United States. More than 53,000 people have died, and some 217,000 have recovered.