COVID-19 & Detention: Fighting for the Right to Health in Tunisia

By Hanen Fathallah, Legal Director, Tunisia


I recently visited my client at a jail in Tunis. When I arrived, only a handful of people were wearing masks, the corridors were crowded, there was a place to wash your hands but the soap dispenser was empty, and the full-body sanitation machine meant to spray visitors as they arrived was not functional.


For some, the initial shock of COVID-19 has begun to fade. But as a second wave descends on Tunisia and many other countries around the world, the dangers of COVID-19 are still very real, especially for people in jails and prisons.


In Tunisia, the justice sector was quick to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing the dangers of crowded detention centers, the president pardoned more than 2,000 people*, children were released rapidly from juvenile centers, and defense attorneys and prosecutors worked together to free as many people as possible. We fought case by case and in April, sent letters to the President of the Republic and the Ministry of Justice. Since March, the ILF has secured the release of dozens of people in Tunisiaand we have not slowed down.


It is well documented that following COVID-19 guidelines is impossible in prison. Social distancing is impractical in crowded detention centers. Additionally, hand-washing facilities are not always available, and although masks have proven effective in slowing the spread of diseases, availability of personal protective equipment has proven scarce in detention centers around the world.


The right to health is written in Tunisia’s constitution, and it applies to everyone. As defense attorneys, we must take swift action to advocate for the rights of our clients and for all people who remain in detention. Our team of lawyers is making arguments on behalf of each of our clients that release from detention is the only way to protect this right, and perhaps the only way to save their lives from the pandemic.


Some of us are beginning to regain a semblance of normalcy. Restaurants are reopening, we can go for walks outside, and we can choose to take precautions like wearing a mask, washing our hands, and spending time only with those closest to us. But we mustn’t forget that people stuck in jails and prisons do not have the ability to choose safety. They remain one of the most vulnerable populations to infection and it is our responsibility to fight for them.


*Figure according to the Tunisian Ministry of Justice website as of 9/30/2020


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