Open letter to Mr. Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea – Re: Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the Eritrean Penal System

Dear President Isaias Afwereki,

You may well have heard that Iran, suffering from a huge outbreak of coronavirus, has temporarily released 85,000 prisoners from its jails in order to cope effectively with the virus that has infected the country’s penal system, as well as the whole population.

As I am sure you must be aware, no country is going to be immune from this potentially deadly virus, and Eritrea will be no exception, as demonstrated already by reports of the first case of coronavirus in a traveller from Norway arriving in Eritrea confirmed on the 21st of this month. Since symptoms do not normally display until fourteen days after infection, it is highly likely that there are already many returning Eritreans who are unwittingly carriers of the disease.  

The virus is at its most dangerous in confined spaces where there is sustained contact, not necessarily physical.  It is airborne and can spread itself on many kinds of surfaces. High standards of hygiene are vital at this time. You must be conscious of the huge numbers of citizens held in your country’s extremely overcrowded prisons, and of the very unsatisfactory hygiene and health conditions within Eritrea’s penal system. Most of them are prisoners of conscience who have been detained without legal due process for years.

When, as it must, the virus reaches Eritrea’s prisons, it could be even more lethal than in Iran. If Iran has had to temporarily release this huge number of prisoners to ensure there are not huge mass fatalities in its penal system, it must be apparent to you that Eritrea will need to take the same steps.

On the grounds of sheer humanity and to avoid an enormous death toll from the prison population, we must urge you to start this release programme at once, before it is too late. Will you make the plans for prisoner release immediately? May we appeal to you to initiate the whole programme by closing the entire military camp at Sawa and all other military training camps, where young people will be particularly at risk? We also urge you to halt the ongoing rounding up of citizens from the streets their homes and public spaces for military training?

This is perhaps the most urgent and dangerous issue you are likely to deal with this year.   Will you take the necessary humanitarian steps to protect Eritrea’s large prison population? And will you co-operate with the World Health Organization (WHO) in doing so? It is further requested that you initiate specific health care and life protection programmes for the elderly, the poor and people with disabilities, as well as war disabled veterans, to protect them from this hugely dangerous virus. 

Yours sincerely,

Elizabeth Chyrum
Human Rights Concern-Eritrea

Copy to:

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Director General
World Health Organization (WHO)

Mr. António Guterres
Secretary-General of the United Nations
New York USA