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  • Writer's pictureDetained in Dubai

Fear in Dubai over Coronavirus prison outbreak

Coronavirus cases reported in several of Dubai’s detention facilities.

State controlled media in the UAE can no longer conceal the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, throughout the city, throughout the labour camps and throughout the overcrowded and unsanitary prisons.

“We can confirm that several individuals inside Dubai’s detention facilities have been infected with Covid-19, leaving many expats in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in fear for their lives” said Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, who has been working to repatriate foreign citizens from the UAE and Qatar during the crisis.

“Of course, the prison facilities and labour camps in the UAE present a nightmare scenario for the unchecked spread of the virus They are overcrowded and unsanitary and there is little regard for the safety of these individuals. Despite confirmed cases, there is still no hand sanitiser, and many prisoners have been left without the most basic prevention supplies such as hand soap. This is quite rightly, spreading fear throughout the prison population, with many inmates seeing that an unpaid fine, a bounced cheque or missed payment could mean a death sentence.

“Guards and prison staff are too afraid, wearing full protective gear, delivering food in garbage bags through the gate, and nurses throwing medicine from several metres away which the prisoners have to consume from the dirty floor. In a cell block with 120 prisoners together, without soap, masks or gloves, the virus is likely to hit everyone. Given the conditions in which prisoners are usually kept, they are likely to have weakened immune systems and are at great risk of complications.”

Detained in Dubai has been inundated with calls and emails from worried husband’s, wives, parents and children expressing a feeling of helplessness as embassies fail to secure freedom for their citizens. “Calls have been made to the UAE authorities to release as many prisoners as they can during the pandemic. We have to remember that the vast majority of expats in prison are there for minor, nonviolent offences, such as debt, business failure, bounced cheques, alcohol consumption, or offensive behaviour. There is no reason to keep these individuals in prison. They are not a threat to society and their continued presence in the prison is only serving to increase the risk of infection. Now is the time to issue urgent, compassionate pardons and let these people return to their home countries.

“André Gauthier, a Canadian citizen has been held in prison for months on a technicality, despite being found innocent of allegations against him in December last year. His continued detention is absurd in itself, but for his family to have to go through the additional stress of him being in a coronavirus incubation hotspot is inhumane and unnecessary. If expats die from contracting the virus within the prison system, it will be highly damaging to Dubai’s already wounded reputation.

Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, is called on by relatives worldwide to consider releasing as many prisoners as possible, to minimise risk, and to help reunite distressed families.

“On top of the at risk prison population, there are thousands of expats and tourists desperate to get home. Some of them are stuck there because they haven’t paid a hotel bill (and can’t), others for unpaid fines or visa complications, for credit card debt or other petty matters that result in a travel ban. In light of this international crisis, we ask Sheikh Mohammed to grant amnesty to those who are travel banned. With fear escalating and the possibility of never seeing loved ones again, allowing them to return home in spite of travel bans, is the only humane thing to do.”

The UAE has warned residents that “people who spread rumours about the virus on social media deliberately or out of ignorance by re-sharing false information, will face legal action including jail.” Speech in the UAE is notoriously controlled, with citizens, residents and tourists alike, having faced jail for their political views, for fundraising, and even over facebook posts. Stirling commented “Media is strictly controlled in the Emirates, with newspapers needing to seek government approval before publication. When Princess Latifa escaped and I released her video and story, not a single UAE media outlet even mentioned the international incident. Journalists walk a fine line, with many having left what they described as working in public relations more than journalism in the UAE. Local Emiratis seeking a democratic system of government have been jailed in secret prisons, while expats have been arrested for raising funds for their favourite charity on social media. It is no wonder that the population of the UAE are afraid to speak their minds and indeed, the truth. The Emirates are strictly controlling coverage of the pandemic, with threats of prison sentences to those who post photos or speak out about the impact of the virus. The extent of infections in the country, within the labour camps and prison facilities is not reportable without the risk of criminal penalties”.

Detained in Dubai has been in touch with foreign embassies, urging them to seek the release of citizens who are travel banned or in prison for minor offences. “The Embassies have been overwhelmed with calls for help. Some people are in desperate situations, some are homeless while others are separated from their families. The expanse of the impact on people stranded abroad is heartbreaking. So far, foreign governments have managed to secure flight arrangements for some tourists who were stuck in Dubai, but have not responded to nationals who need more than a flight recommendation. We have called on the UK, US, Canadian and Australian governments to work with their UAE counterparts to secure the release of travel banned citizens and those in prison for non-serious crime. This is not a time for ambassadors to be complacent. Their actions now can save citizen’s lives and they are the first line of defence for people facing extreme situations abroad.”

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