DemocracyWatch: Political prisoners face the pandemic behind bars

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13 May 2020
Saharawi soldiers in 1985

As coronavirus rips through the jails of the world, political prisoners are facing extraordinary risks. In India, the government is rounding up students. In Western Sahara, Moroccan authorities continue to detain Saharawi activists despite a prisoner release scheme, and in the US, estimates from the American Civil Liberties Union show that mass incarceration could add up to 100,000 people to the COVID-19 death toll.

Meanwhile governments continue to roll out unprecedented surveillance. England's National Health Service has quietly announced the largest handover of patient data to private companies in history. Who stands to gain? US tech giants Amazon, Microsoft and Google – plus controversial AI films Faculty and Palantir.

openDemocracy and Foxglove, a tech justice start-up, have demanded the British government release more details of these lucrative deals under Freedom of Information laws. The government has just missed its deadline to comply, which means we may have to sue for publication – follow our partners Foxglove and sign up to get updates - as this story develops.

Coronavirus is hitting every corner of our lives. And all around the world, it’s eroding democracy, human rights and civil liberties. In this weekly email, openDemocracy, SourceMaterial and Privacy International are monitoring these attacks. Please send us any examples you see to [email protected].

You can read the round-up below. Stay safe.

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After Lockdown: How do we fix Britain’s dirty money industry?

From money laundering to arms smuggling to VAT fraud, big-time criminals use one tool above all others to hide their tracks: British corporate structures.

The UK's respectable-looking register of companies distracts attention from a complete absence of checks on the people creating them. This makes the country an accessory to staggering volumes of financial crime. What will it take to make this better?

openDemocracy brings together top experts on British corruption to thrash out a path forward. Join us on 14 May at 5pm UK time/6pm CET.

Hear from: Susan Hawley, Director of Spotlight on Corruption, and one of the UK's most respected anti-corruption voices; Heather Marquette, Professor of Development Politics, University of Birmingham, and a Fellow in the Institute for Global Innovation’s Twenty-First Century Transnational Organised Crime research cluster; Peter Geoghegan, Investigations Editor at openDemocracyUK and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'; and Oliver Bullough, journalist and the author of 'Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take It Back'.


Uganda A member of parliament was detained and tortured for ten days as the government and aligned paramilitary groups persecuted political opponents in the name of halting the virus.

Liberia Broadcaster Spoon FM closed its newsroom after its general manager was one of several journalists stopped by police. Press pass issues were preventing journalists from informing communities on protection against the virus, she said, while a minister warned journalists that they would be “embarrassed” at security checkpoints for not complying with new rules.

Cameroon As battles with separatists continued, the government has banned humanitarian flights as part of its efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

Tanzania President John Magufuli denounced coronavirus statistics from health officials as fake and “imperialist sabotage”, stopping release of further results, suspending the director of the national health laboratory and instituting an investigation. 

Madagascar Several African countries received shipments from Madagascar of a plant-based ‘cure’ for coronavirus promoted by President Andry Rajoelina despite warnings from the World Health Organization that its efficacy is unproven.

Ethiopia The government has been accused of using a state of emergency to crack down on freedom of speech

Western Sahara The wife of a Saharawi activist has called on occupying Morocco to free political prisoners from the country’s liberation movement as COVID-19 spreads through the nation’s jails. 


Russia Alexander Shulepov became the third Russian doctor to fall out of a window after criticising the state’s coronavirus response. On 7 May he was still in a coma.

Belarus The government cancelled two journalists’ accreditation after they reported that infection rates may exceed official figures.

UK Following trials on the Isle of Wight, the NHS may adapt its contact-tracing app or abandon it in favour of a decentralised model that stores data about movements on a user’s phone rather than with the government, the communities secretary said. 

UK The government awarded Randox Laboratories, a healthcare firm which employs the prominent Conservative politician Owen Paterson as a paid consultant, a £133 million contract without a public tender. openDemocracy and Foxglove, a tech justice start-up, sent a legal letter demanding the UK government urgently publishes details of patient data deals struck with big tech companies at the height of the crisis.

Germany Four members of a ZDF camera team were hospitalised after fifteen unidentified people attacked them.  Separately, a demonstrator kicked an ARD journalist during a protest march against the lockdown.

Germany Far-right group Pegida launched a series of ‘virtual marches’ on YouTube

Hungary Parliament blocked ratification of the Istanbul convention against violence against women. To free hospital beds for COVID-19 sufferers, the government allegedly discharged vulnerable patients without arrangements for care or treatment. It also announced plans to suspend certain EU data protection measures until an indefinite state of emergency is lifted.

Poland A presidential election planned for 10 May did not take place, though formally, it was neither postponed or cancelled. 

France The government took down its coronavirus disinformation-busting Desinfox page after journalists’ and editors’ organisations criticised the website, saying the state “is not the arbiter of information”.

Ukraine Police attacked journalist Bohdan Koutepov while he was videoing a demonstration against containment measures.

Russia Border closures trapped hundreds of thousands of migrants in the country without clarity on their employment rights or access to healthcare. 

Russia The state was accused of co-opting volunteer efforts in the wake of the pandemic. 

Russia Violence against elderly people under lockdown is reportedly rising. In four out of five cases, the assailants are family members. 

Albania Experts feared a rise in unsafe abortions as coronavirus limits access to family planning clinics.


US A 57-year-old man from El Salvador who had tested positive for coronavirus died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which “refused to release him when he still had a chance to survive”, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

US A federal judge upheld a policy in Arkansas requiring women to obtain a negative test for coronavirus before undergoing an abortion.

US Nine coronavirus test sites run by Google may not comply with California’s new privacy law, advocates and lawmakers warned.

US Black people made up 68% of those arrested for social distancing violations, with Hispanic people making up 24%, according to the New York Police Department.

US A number of states have been criticised for amending their laws to restrict access to public information

US Amazon has bought heat-sensing cameras to monitor its workers from a company that was previously blacklisted in the US due to alleged involvement in the imprisonment and monitoring of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.  

Bolivia Interim president Jeanine Añez rejected a law passed in parliament requiring an election to be held by 2 August.

Colombia A transgender woman in Bogotá was stabbed by a man who said she should be at home because of rules compelling women and men leave the house on alternate days.

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele was accused of using a lockdown to dismantle democratic institutions in a move to empower his family.

Guyana A senior US congressman accused the Trump regime of interfering in elections in Guyana


Singapore A robot dog was filmed in a Singapore park instructing people to maintain social distancing. 

Thailand At least 65 detainees in the Songkhla immigration detention centre, including eighteen ethnic Rohingya women and children, tested positive for coronavirus.

Bangladesh Authorities arrested four people and charged seven others with “spreading rumours and misinformation on Facebook” after they criticised the government’s pandemic response.

Hong Kong Police arrested at least ten people and fired ‘pepper balls’ to disperse pro-democracy protesters after warning them that they were violating social distancing rules.

Hong Kong China’s Hong Kong affairs office described pro-democracy protesters as a “political virus” which had to be removed. 

Malaysia A South China Morning Post correspondent was ordered to report to police because of a story about arrests of hundreds of migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur’s coronavirus ‘red zones’, where the infection rate is said to be high. 

Azerbaijan Authorities arrested local officials on allegations of improperly giving out permissions to leave home amid a strict lockdown.

Kyrgyzstan Rights activists raised concerns that a smartphone app developed by the government did not do enough to protect private information.

Tajikistan After a slow response (the country acknowledged its first cases on April 30), President Emomali Rahmon fired the minister of healthcare under unclear circumstances.

Turkmenistan A WHO delegation, currently in neighbouring Tajikistan, has reported bureaucratic hurdles to entering Turkmenistan. Although all the country’s neighbours have reported cases, the government still insists that Turkmenistan is completely free of COVID-19.

Philippines A parliamentary committee threatened the telecoms regulator with a charge of contempt after the regulator reneged on a commitment to allow ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcaster, to continue operations beyond its lapsed franchise.

Afghanistan At least six people were killed when police fired on protesters angry that food handouts to the poor during the coronavirus lockdown were apparently being distributed unfairly. 

India Human rights groups criticised the government for continuing to jail student protesters despite prisons being a hotspot of coronavirus in the country. 

India Researchers found a major security breach in a symptom-tracking app, allowing them to download a major database without a password. 

Pakistan Concerns have been raised over data security after details of a number of people with coronavirus leaked

Pakistan Maternity wards were shut down after authorities said staff members had been diagnosed with coronavirus.

Japan A number of firms have introduced new workplace surveillance technology, leading to unprecedented monitoring of employees. 

South Korea Medical authorities are concerned that LGBTQI coronavirus patients may be unwilling to seek treatment after a wave of homophobia followed the news of a spike of cases in Seoul’s gay district. 

Middle East & North Africa

Iraq Islamic State militants took advantage of the pandemic to ramp up attacks. 

Syria President Bashar Assad issued a decree postponing the country's parliamentary elections until July, the second delay in light of restrictions to combat the virus.

Palestine Fatah authorities in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza detained five people for peacefully expressing their views about the pandemic.

Palestine Israeli occupation forces have demolished the family home of political prisoner Qassam Al Barghouthi.

Israel An Israeli cyber-intelligence firm has been pitching phone-tracking technology to a number of governments around the world. 

Yemen The World Health Organization ordered its staff out of areas held by Houthi rebels, reportedly to pressure them to be more transparent about suspected coronavirus cases.

Egypt Amendments to the state of emergency granted President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and security agencies extra powers to suspend schools and universities, quarantine people returning from abroad and ban public and private meetings, protests, celebrations and other forms of assembly.

Egypt A court in Egypt has arbitrarily extended the pre-trial detention of over 1,600 defendants.

Algeria A satirical meme creator was arrested for criticising the president in a coronavirus crackdown.

Lebanon Army intelligence and other security agencies were involved in arbitrary arrests and torture of activists and journalists.

Lebanon Palestinian refugees were banned from returning to Lebanon abroad repatriation flights.

Morocco A campaign of online harassment has trampled the privacy of presumed gay and bisexual men, possibly subjecting them to physical harm, prosecution, and discriminatory measures.

Climate & environment

South Korea The government backed a $2 billion bailout of the country’s biggest coal plant manufacturer despite promises to end coal financing.

US Multimillion-dollar companies in the oil and gas sector received at least $72 million in government-guaranteed loans intended for small businesses.

US The plastics industry stepped up a lobbying drive as several states suspended or delayed bans on single-use plastics.

US The Trump administration waived a requirement to monitor Midwest waterways for the presence of a weedkiller linked to the development of respiratory ailments.

India Activists condemned the government for pushing through destructive environmental projects at a time when citizens are unable to protest.

Good news

Taiwan The government rejected a request from the Philippines to deport a Filipina care worker for making “nasty and malevolent” remarks on Facebook against President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Brazil Journalists in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro helped raise awareness of the virus and how to stay safe from it. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan Deaths on the front line in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh appear to have fallen in comparison to previous years; the spring is usually marked by a spike in armed clashes.

Russia Support for President Vladimir Putin fell to a record low: 59%. 

Kenya There has been a mass prisoner release, helping inmates avoid the virus.

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy 

Further speakers to be announced

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