It has not taken long for authoritarian regimes to turn Covid 19 into a weapon.
In Turkey, for example, thousands of people who were imprisoned for criminal offences including rape and murder have been released because of the risk of infection during the pandemic. Meanwhile, writers, journalists and political activists remain in detention and, obviously, at risk, as though their lives and health have less value.
This week, we hear of the cruel, inhumane treatment of 81 year old poet and activist Varavara Rao in Mumbai. Rao’s health has been of concern since June. At first denied medical treatment, he was finally admitted to hospital. Relatives say that when they visited him there they found him in an appalling condition, lying in a pool of his own urine on unchanged sheets.
English PEN reports that ‘Mohamed Monir has died after reportedly contracting the (Coronavirus) in pre-trial detention.’ The Middle East Monitor is calling Monir’s death ‘murder by Coronavirus’, comparing it to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Finally, I read with great sadness that Narges Mohammadi not only remains in detention, but has contracted the virus (Source: English PEN). In 2016 Mohammadi was the featured writer at Frontline Defenders’ reading to honour the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. I read for her that day. Here is some of what I learned about her when preparing for the reading:
Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 22 years in prison in Iran: 10 years for membership of a human rights organisation; 5 years for “assembly and collusion against national security,” and one year for “propaganda against the state.” She was also to serve six years of an 11-year prison sentence issued in 2011 for the same reasons. It was not clear whether or not she would serve the 2 sentences concurrently.
In a statement in October 2016, Mohammadi said that she had no doubt that the people who sentenced her, as well as the people of Iran, know that she has committed ‘no crime or sin to deserve such a harsh punishment. I have faith in the path I have chosen (&) the actions I have taken, as well as my beliefs. I am determined to make human rights a reality [in Iran] and have no regrets. … I will endure this incarceration, but I will never accept it as lawful, human or moral, and I will always speak out against this injustice.”
Narges Mohammadi has two children, twins, who have left Iran since her imprisonment. Much of her writing from prison expresses her devastation on being separated from her children, and their grief for her. They are currently pleading for her release. (Link via English PEN)
Their plea is a reminder of the extreme disruption that families experience when an activist is imprisoned. The effects and the trauma are not just experienced by the prisoner but by their families also. It seems to me that this extended punishment is yet another weapon that repressive regimes use to silence people. It makes Narges Mohammaddi’s courage all the more admirable, her commitment to human rights more extraordinary. The price she and her family have to pay was already higher than most of us would be willing to pay. Now Covid-19 has been added to her punishment.