COVID-19 threatens Indonesia’s overcrowded prisons

Release wrongfully detained prisoners, seek alternatives for at-risk detainees

COVID-19 threatens Indonesia’s overcrowded prisons

As the Indonesian government battles the global COVID-19 “coronavirus” pandemic, calling on Indonesians to respect physical distancing, closing schools and offices, and even emptying the streets, a Jakarta court has continued to hold weekly trial proceedings of six West Papuan activists charged with “treason.”

The five men and one woman, along with more than 50 other activists in separate trials nationwide, were caught up in a government crackdown following Papuan protests in August 2019 and are being held for peaceful acts of free expression.

Indonesia is facing a surge in coronavirus cases. The Ministry of Health recorded 1,414 coronavirus cases, with 122 deaths, on March 30. The data undoubtedly understates the scale of infections because of a low rate of testing, and at least 10 Indonesian doctors have died battling the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Indonesian prisons and detention centers are bursting at the seams. As of March 23, the country’s prisons and detention centers held almost 270,000 inmates, more than double their maximum capacity.

The Indonesian authorities should take steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 in its overcrowded prisons. First, immediately release all those wrongfully held behind bars, including all Papuan political prisoners.

The Ministry of Law and Human Rights, which manages prisons, should also look at alternatives to custody or consider early releases or parole for detainees who are near the end of their prison terms, or who pose little security risk, such as those imprisoned for unpaid fines. Those with underlying health conditions and older people at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus should be given priority.

The United Development Party, a member of the President Joko Widodo’s governing coalition, have already asked the government to release drug users and small-time drug sellers as well as other minor-case prisoners, especially in overcrowded prisons. The Ministry of Law and Human Rights should provide appropriate information on hygiene and supplies, and ensure all areas accessible to prisoners, prison staff and visitors are disinfected regularly.

The government should also develop plans for housing prisoners exposed to the virus in individual medical isolation. Indonesia’s government should also drop unnecessary trials prosecuting peaceful Papuan activists, such as the one in Jakarta.


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