For Muslims around the world, the period spanning Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr is a time of deep spirituality and happy moments spent with family. But for prison inmates in the Muslim world, it is often also a time when forgiveness can change the course of their lives.
Authorities traditionally take the holiday period as an opportunity to release some prisoners who have been jailed for minor offences, giving them an opportunity to start anew. In many countries where detention centres have been vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus, this year’s pardons are of particular significance, as prisoners rely completely upon the state for their care and well-being.
Pardons and releases over the Muslim holiday period are therefore timely, but the practice should be extended beyond the Muslim world, too. In April, the UN recommended that governments around the world put additional measures in place to protect inmates, and release low-risk offenders as well as those who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Authorities have also been called upon to avoid overcrowding in cells and to devote extra resources to preventing the spread of oubreaks.
The UK announced last month that it planned to release up to 4,000 prisoners while Afghanistan said it would set free 10,000 detainees in response to the UN’s plea. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has said it will release 30,000 inmates to take the pressure off its overcrowded prisons.
Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, has ordered the release of 1,511 prisoners for Ramadan, in addition to more than a thousand releases and pardons carried out by the rulers of each emirate ahead of the holy month or Eid Al Fitr. Special precautions have also been implemented to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in UAE prisons. In Dubai’s largest detention centre, visits, hearings and all other meetings are held by videoconference to minimise physical contact. Inmates and staff have all been tested for the virus, and the detention centre has reduced by up to 35 per cent its inmate population since the onset of the outbreak.
These precautionary measures are necessary to prevent and contain potential outbreaks in the prison system. Such tragedies have unfortunately been reported elsewhere in the Gulf and beyond. Human Rights Watch recently warned that authorities failed to contain an outbreak in Qatar’s overcrowded prisons. Instead of tending to the sick’s needs and reducing the number of detainees, prison authorities there “further restricted prisoners’ limited access to basic medical care,” according to the NGO, leaving the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions particularly exposed.
The coronavirus pandemic has put to the test the world’s compassion and the ability of communities and countries to work together to tackle this borderless crisis. Essential and low-income workers, older people and those with underlying conditions are particularly at risk, and require special attention and increased protection. Much has been said about their invaluable contributions to society, and our shared responsibility towards them. Our compassion must not run dry when it comes to prisoners who are in the process of paying their dues to society. They also deserve to be protected from disease and, in time, to have a second chance at life.