Issued on: 25/03/2020 – 16:15Modified: 25/03/2020 – 16:22

Countries must protect people in detention from the COVID-19 pandemic by releasing vulnerable prisoners, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Wednesday.

Covid-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centres, as well as residential care homes and psychiatric hospitals, and risks rampaging through such institutions’ extremely vulnerable populations,” Bachelet said in a statement.

“Authorities should examine ways to release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, among them older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders.”

Germany’s North-Rhine Westphalia to release 1,000 prisoners

A number of countries and local authorities have already begun releasing prisoners in a bid to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus that has killed more than 19,000 people across the globe.

Germany‘s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, on Wednesday announced plans to release as many as 1,000 prisoners in order to free up cells to be used as quarantine rooms out of concern that coronavirus could spread unchecked in jails.

The plan, first reported by Focus magazine, would see prisoners released who only had a short part of their sentence left to run. Sex offenders and those convicted of other violent crimes were explicitly excluded from the scheme, state justice minister Peter Biesenbach said.

“Right now we have only a handful of free spaces,” Biesenbach told reporters on Wednesday, adding that he expected other German states to follow suit

Ethiopia to free thousands from overcrowded jails

Ethiopia also announced Wednesday that it would free thousands of inmates from the country’s overcrowded prisons as part of a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Attorney General Adanech Abebe told state media the measure would apply to more than 4,000 prisoners, many of whom are locked up for “petty crimes” and drug offences or have less than a year remaining on their sentences.

“Considering the nature of the transmission of the virus and to end the overcrowding in prisons, the cases of 4,011 prisoners have been discontinued and given pardons,” Adanech said, adding that the releases would begin Thursday.

Conditions in Ethiopia’s prisons are “harsh and in some cases life-threatening,” marred by “gross overcrowding and inadequate food, water, sanitation, and medical care,” according to the latest annual human rights report on Ethiopia from the US State Department.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered a number of measures to prevent widespread transmission of the coronavirus, including shutting land borders and limiting overcrowding in buses and taxis.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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