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Pneumonia or coronavirus. Why do people die in Tajikistan’s prisons?

Since the official recognition of the presence of COVID-19 in the country, 11 people have died in penitentiary institutions of the Republic with a diagnosis of “pneumonia”. Some prisoners and their relatives fear that this is all coronavirus. 

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Rahmatullo Rajab. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com
Rahmatullo Rajab. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com

Rahmatullo Rajab, who was a member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, has been in correctional labour colony No.1 for the past five years. The authorities accused him and other leaders of IRPT of involvement in the mutiny organized by Abduhalim Nazarzoda, and sentenced them to long prison terms.

Relatives of Rajab claim that he was infected with COVID-19, but then was able to fight this disease.

Rajab’s son Shukhrat Rahmatullo, who currently resides in Europe, informed CABAR.asia that his father fell ill at the end of April. According to Shukhrat Rahmatullo, his father had first complained of a sore throat, and his temperature did not fall below 38 degrees.

When this was reported in the media, representatives of the penitentiary institutions said that Rahmatullo Rajab and several other prisoners fell ill due to drinking cold water during iftar in the holy month of Ramadan.  

However, Shukhrat Rahmatullo says that after the temperature rose, his father found it difficult to breathe and lost appetite.

X-ray of the chest of Rahmatullo Rajab. Photo courtesy of Shukhrat Rahmatullo 
X-ray of the chest of Rahmatullo Rajab. Photo courtesy of Shukhrat Rahmatullo 

“He contacted the family through the prison phone, and it was obvious that he had breathing difficulties. In the last conversation with him, during farewell, he said: “If something happens to me, you should know that the cause is coronavirus,” said the prisoner’s son.

After that, Shukhrat Rahmatullo received advice from foreign doctors and passed them on to his relatives.

 “One doctor recommended giving him more fruit juice. We took fruit juice to the prison, and after drinking it, my father’s condition improved,” says Rahmatullo.

As stated by Rahmatullo, his father’s illness lasted for a month, during which the family delivered the necessary medicines. Our interviewee says that after talking to his father, he learned that they were not tested for coronavirus, and only once they have passed through computer testing.

Shukhrat Rahmatullo. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com
Shukhrat Rahmatullo. Photo from personal page on Facebook.com

According to Shukhrat Rahmatullo, on the basis of testing, doctors at the hospital said that his father had pneumonia.

 “But I showed the test results to a foreign doctor and he said: “there is a 90% probability that your father has COVID-19,” claims Shukhrat Rahmatullo.

Rahmatullo Rajab is not the only prisoner whose COVID-19 infection was revealed to the media. Earlier, in the same corrective labour colony No.1 died Abdulfayz Rajabov. Relatives of imprisoned Tajik businessman Zayd Saidov also complained last month that Saidov’s condition had deteriorated in prison.

But representatives of penitentiary institutions reject the criticism.

Mansurjon Umarov, Head of the Main Directorate for the Execution of Criminal Sentences of the Ministry of Justice of Tajikistan (GUIN), in an interview with Radio Ozodi, denied the facts of infection with coronavirus in the country’s prisons. He said that since the announcement of the presence of coronavirus in Tajikistan, 11 prisoners with these symptoms have died. However, according to Umarov, all the deceased had pneumonia.

Mansurjon Umarov. Photo ozodi.org
Mansurjon Umarov. Photo ozodi.org

According to official data, as of June 16, in total, 50 people in Tajikistan have died from coronavirus.

Head of GUIN also denies the problem of medicine shortage in prisons, however admitted that relatives of the prisoners bring them medicines.

“Perhaps the detainees asked their relatives to bring medicines that, in their opinion, are better treated. We have received all medicines from the Ministry of Health and there are even stocks in warehouses. There are no issues with beds, medicines, x-ray machines and artificial lung ventilation machines,” reassured Mansurjon Umarov.

Difficulties of access

According to human rights advocates, it is difficult to assess the real situation with the spread of coronavirus in prisons in Tajikistan. The authorities do not permit access to penitentiary institutions for international organizations and independent journalists.

Before the visit of the World Health Organization delegation to Tajikistan, which took place on May 1, representatives of the country’s civil society called on representatives of this organization to visit prisons. However, this did not happen, representatives of WHO during the press-conference did not explain the reasons for refusing to visit the prisons. At present, information from prisons comes from only two sources: from the authorities and from prisoners’ phone conversations.

Tajik authorities do not permit access to prisons for human rights advocates. Photo: ozodi.org
Tajik authorities do not permit access to prisons for human rights advocates. Photo: ozodi.org

Relatives of the prisoners said the only “privilege” that the government has granted during the pandemic – daily conversations with relatives who are in prison. However, some detainees hinted that not everything can be discussed, because the phones can be tapped, and this creates difficulties.

The Tajik prison authorities at the end of March, when the government still absolutely denied the presence of coronavirus in the country, had already prohibited relatives from visiting prisoners. This order is still in force and it is not known when it will be canceled.

However in April, the media already reported on the illness of prisoners. Inmate Rahmatullo Rajab, told his relatives that 47 people with the symptoms of coronavirus were hospitalized at the beginning of the disease in the medical unit of corrective labour colony No.1. The inmate also told his relatives that the beds in the prison’s medical facility were full, thus beds were placed in the corridors to accommodate patients. 

Human rights advocates who are aware of the conditions in the prisons of Tajikistan say they are worse than can be imagined from the outside.

Shukhrat Kudratov. Photo has been taken from personal page on Facebook.com
Shukhrat Kudratov. Photo has been taken from personal page on Facebook.com

Shukhrat Kudratov, a Tajik lawyer, spent more than four years behind bars and was only released in 2018. He says that he served his sentence in a pre-trial detention facility (SIZO) and two other prisons. According to him, there are no basic conditions for treatment in Tajik prisons.

In a conversation with CABAR.asia, the lawyer said that all medicines and medical supplies, up to syringes, are brought by relatives of prisoners.

“Special equipment is required for treatment of patients with coronavirus, such as mechanical ventilators. I have not seen such equipment in prisons. We do not even need to talk about expensive antiviral drugs,” the lawyers said.

According to Shukhrat Kudratov, the words of the Head of GUIN that they have all conditions for treating patients with coronavirus, raise doubts.

“The authorities know that access to prisons is limited and nobody is able to independently investigate the situation,” says Kudratov.

Tajikistan did not take any serious steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus in prisons, with the exception of prohibiting meetings with prisoners. Civil society representatives have repeatedly called on the authorities to follow the example of other countries, in particular Iran, and release the elderly prisoners. The authorities did not accept this proposal. 

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

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