Tunisia: Authorities should reduce the number of detainees during COVID-19 crisis

The Tunisian authorities must urgently consider reducing the number of people detained for breaching emergency health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Amnesty International warned today.

On March 31, President Kais Said granted special pardon to 1,420 prisoners in an effort to reduce risk of outbreak of COVID-19 contamination in prisons. While this is a positive step, much more still needs to be done to protect detainees who remain at risk in pre-trial detention and police custody.

Since Elyes Fakhfakh, the country’s head of government, announced that a national lockdown would be enforced from 22 March, police have arrested at least 1,400 people for violating curfew or confinement measures. 

“We understand that anyone violating the national lockdown and social distancing measures potentially hinders the state’s efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“But detaining even more people, given the elevated risk of transmission, places their health in jeopardy and can only serve to further increase the current health crisis.”

Amnesty International has recommended that the Tunisian authorities consider adopting non-custodial measures for people accused of violating the emergency measures taken by the state to control the spread of the virus. To reduce the exposure of detainees to COVID-19, authorities should also avoid overcrowding in police detention centres or in court cells.

“The standards of sanitation and health services in prisons and detention centers are very poor. People are often held in overcrowded cells where physical distancing is virtually impossible to uphold”, said Amna Guellali.


The notorious overcrowding and poor conditions in Tunisian prisons is a matter of utmost concern amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. According to government data, Tunisian prisons held 22,600 people at the end of 2018, exceeding the maximum capacity of 17,700 inmates. Up to 50 per cent of all prisoners are in pre-trial detention and thousands are held for minor, nonviolent offences, such as use or possession of drugs.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, prison populations are particularly exposed to infectious diseases like COVID-19 and conditions of detention can exacerbate the risks.

On 25 March, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned governments of the “catastrophic” consequences for both detainees and wider communities of failing to address prison overcrowding and poor detention conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to international law and standards on conditions of detention, the Tunisian authorities should ensure that all prisoners have prompt access to medical attention and health care. Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19. 


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