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Coronavirus: Rights groups call on UN to urge Egypt to release prisoners

Letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls for prisoner releases as first case among prisoners is confirmed
More than 600 people have died in Egyptian prisons since 2013 (AFP)

A coalition of rights groups, activists, politicians and members of civil society are calling on the United Nations to ask Egypt to release its political prisoners amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

The coalition, which includes former Tunisian President Moncef Marzuki, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, urging the prisoner releases after the first case among prisoners was confirmed in Egypt.

The letter says that leaked information indicates there are many more cases in Cairo's al-Aqrab prison.

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"We are writing to you to draw your attention to the dramatic situation of the prisoners detained in Egypt as the Covid-19 outbreak has severely hit the country," the letter reads.

"We ask for your urgent intervention so that Egyptian prisoners are temporarily released during the outbreak to avoid a fast spread of the virus in jails which would cause dozens of thousands of deaths."

Many Egyptian prisoners are kept in police stations, security directorates and unofficial detention sites, including security forces training sites.

The National Council for Human Rights reported in May 2015 that police stations were at 300 percent overcapacity and prisons 160 percent overcapacity.

It said the conditions in which prisoners in Egypt live are deplorable, with prisoners saying that guards punish them by confiscating personal hygiene tools, including soap, toothbrushes and toilet paper.

"Even more worrying in this time of pandemic, prisoners are crammed in cells that are so small that they have to wait for their turns to lay down and sleep," the letter read.

'Inhumane conditions'

Following a request from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Tehran released 85,000 prisoners, including many political prisoners, in an attempt to help stop the spread of the virus.

The letter, which has more than 30 signatories, urges the UN to make a similar request of Cairo, saying that Egyptian prisoners are faced with conditions similar to those in Iran.

More than 600 people have died in Egyptian prisons since 2013, amid the "inhumane conditions they were held and out of gross medical negligence".

"The lack of basic health care seems to be common practice as reported by the Committee for Justice. Also, the food prisoners receive is not varied enough," the letter read.

"In this context, we fear that most prisoners already suffer from a poor immune system and will not be supplied with the necessary health care in case they fall ill to the Covid-19."

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the Egyptian government detained four activists who staged a protest calling for the release of prisoners in the country.

They currently detained at Qasr el-Nil police station in central Cairo, but are being held incommunicado.