MENA region COVID-19 measures cause an increase in the violation of citizens’ rights

Tue 31 Mar 2020

MENA region COVID-19 measures cause an increase in the violation of citizens’ rights

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus (more commonly known as the coronavirus) countries around the world have taken different precautionary measures. Countries like Italy and Spain have gone into a complete lockdown in an attempt to slow down the virus, while countries such as the Netherlands have imposed less strict rules onto its citizens. In some cases, the measures put in place by the government are used as a justification to crackdown on citizens. In particular, citizens’ rights regarding freedom of speech and freedom of movement are at risk. The rights of prisoners are being ignored by the measures in multiple countries as well. Rights organizations have pleaded with international and national bodies to issue guidelines, but have so far not received any responses. 

Jordan

These human rights violations can clearly be seen in Jordan. When the coronavirus broke out the Jordanian government suspended all public institutions, government departments and the private sector, as well as banning public gatherings of more than 10 people and urging people to work from home. Besides these measures that were taken by the majority of countries across the world, Jordan also decided to stop the printing of both independent and state-owned newspapers and implemented a round-the-clock curfew for an unspecified period on the 21st of March. When this curfew was implemented it also applied to people leaving their house to buy food and violating it could lead to hefty fines and up to one year in prison. The government also stated that it would announce a mechanism to buy food 4 days later, on the 24th of March. This meant that people were not able to buy any groceries or medicine during that period, which in particular impacted Jordan’s poor people who were already suffering from scarce food supplies. On the 21st of March alone already 400 people were arrested for breaking curfew and on the subsequent days this number only increased. The people that were arrested at the various checkpoints across the country were detained at the King Talah School in Khaw and the secondary school for military culture in Hasa by the Jordan Armed Forces-Arab Army. Not only that, but their cars were impounded and held at designated yards for 30 days, after which they had to pay an additional fine on top of the their other punishment. The Public Security Directorate (PSD) stated that “no leniency will be shown towards reckless behavior”. Government spokesperson Amjad Adayleh said that a lack of compliance with the curfew would result in “immediate imprisonment, which will not exceed one year.”

Michael Page, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch said that “Jordanian authorities should stick by their commitment not to abridge basic rights under the state of emergency and to ensure that all measures taken are necessary and proportional to the threat posed by the pandemic.” After the 4 days the government announced that people would be allowed to buy groceries and medicine at local shops between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. However, the bigger supermarkets remained closed so people were only able to buy the bare minimum of necessities like water and bread.

Besides making arrests for breaking the curfew, Jordan has also arrested people for spreading “fake news” regarding the coronavirus. One man was arrested when he claimed that a person had died of the coronavirus in Zarqa. The Public Security Department (PSD) warned against spreading rumors and false news, especially under the current difficult circumstances. Despite the strict measures and harsh punishments, a poll conducted by the University of Jordan’s Strategic Studies Centre between March 22nd and 26th suggests that between 62 and 92 percent of the people “fully agree” with the government’s procedure.

Egypt

Similar measures were implemented in Egypt. On the 25th of March the Egyptian government announced a two week nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m., which included a halt on public transport between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. The Cairo metro which transports 3.5 million people daily was included in this measure. The punishment for breaking the curfew is a fine as well as the possibility of jail time.

Many Egyptians are skeptical about the government’s transparency in dealing with the crisis. After an apart media silence, the news broke that three high ranking officers had died from the virus which prompted speculation about the health of President Sisi. The president had not been seen in public for two weeks which sparked speculation among the population that he had been quarantined, but nothing was officially confirmed or denied.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, Egypt started to arrest citizens that, according to the government, were spreading “fake news” regarding the coronavirus after reporting on the number of people affected in the country. Prime minister Mostafa Madbouly announced the launch of a government campaign against the circulation of news about the coronavirus in Egypt. A few days before the curfew was established four women were detained by Egyptian security forces after demonstrating in Cairo for the release of prisoners they said may be at risk from the virus. Their charges included incitement to organize a demonstration and spreading false news. In this case the women were released and 15 members of political movements were released. However, even though the total number of Egyptian prisoners is unknown, tens of thousands have been detained in the last 7 years since the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted. Therefore, the release of 15 prisoners will not control the spread of the virus in prisons.

On the 24th of March MENA Rights Group and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Police (TIMEP) together with 38 organizations across the world issued a statement calling on governments in the MENA region to take urgent measures to protect their prison population from the virus and in doing so their population as a whole since unsanitary prisons can accelerate the spread of the virus. They also urged international and regional bodies such as the World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United Nations to issue guidance around detention amid the pandemic. However, those bodies have yet to respond to the plea.

Activist worry that the number of people affected by the virus in Egypt is far higher than reported. In fact, Egyptian authorities crossed several journalist who attempted to report of the amount of cases. A journalist from The Guardian was expelled after writing a story that challenged the official count of coronavirus cases, after which a reporter from The New York Times was censored after tweeting about the story. What also contributes to the underreporting of cases had to do with the facilities in which those who test positive are held. Those people are held in military hospitals which are not subject to the direct supervision of the Ministry of Health and therefore cases often go unreported. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health has also endured criticism. It recently became clear that the Ministry had sent doctors and medical teams to a quarantine facility without notifying them that they were part of the COVID-19 response and the risks that entailed. Medical staff said that they were “tricked”.

Morocco

In Morocco people have been arrested for spreading “fake news” as well. Prime minister Saad Eddine El-Otmai said that “fake news is the first cause of panic among citizens.” Over a dozen people so far have been arrested for spreading rumors about the virus, including a woman who used her YouTube channel to say that the virus did not exist, urging people to defy the governments measures, and a woman who said in a WhatsApp voice message that went viral that Marrakech was on lock down when it was not.

Rights groups in Morocco have criticizes the government on its increasing crackdown on free speech in the last year. One man was arrested for “instigating hatred” and “undermining public order” for criticizing the authorities’ decision to close all mosques in a video. The government has since approved a draft law governing the use of social media in an attempt to deter fake news and cyber crimes undermining public order and the economy. One of the people arrested for spreading fake news was given a two month prison sentence.

 

Sources: Kingdom of the Netherlands / Al Jazeera / The Guardian / Arab News 1 / Arab News 2 / BBC / Jordan Times 1 / Jordan Times 2 / Jordan Times 3 / Jordan Times 4 / Human Rights Watch / Al Monitor / MENA Rights / Reuters 1 / Reuters 2 / Committee to Protect Journalists / Morocco World News / Times of Israel

Photo: Wikipedia