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HRW Warns Against ‘Catastrophic’ Coronavirus Outbreak In Pakistan's Prisons

A health worker checks the body temperature of a burqa-clad woman passenger amid concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus at the railway station in the eastern city of Lahore on March 19.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Pakistan to take “immediate and urgent” steps to ensure that prisoners and detainees have access to adequate medical care and protective measures against the coronavirus.

The New York-based rights group says Pakistani prisons, jails, and detention centers should also consider “reducing their populations through appropriate supervised or early release of low-risk detainees.”

Human Rights Watch said the risk of contagion is particularly serious at overcrowded prisons in Pakistan -- a country where at least 660 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed with at least three deaths. With little testing available, Human Rights Watch said the real number of coronavirus cases is “likely much higher.”

Brad Adams, the rights group's Asia director, said Pakistani authorities “should urgently act to limit the chance of a catastrophic outbreak” at overcrowded detention facilities where he said the government’s “longstanding failure to ensure hygienic and humane conditions is amplifying the threat posed by COVID-19.”

According to a report last year by Pakistan's government, there were 77,275 prisoners being held in 2019 at 114 prisons meant to have a total capacity of only 57,742. The majority of those being held were undergoing trial and had not been convicted.

Meanwhile, Pakistan suspended all international passenger for two weeks. "We are suspending international flight operations effective tonight at 8:00 pm [local time]," Moeed Yusuf, a special assistant to the prime minister on national security, told journalists on March 21.

Earlier Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has urged citizens to strictly follow the policy of self-quarantine and social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Addressing journalists in Islamabad on March 20, Khan said he was not in favor of a total lockdown of the country, saying it would affect poor people.

Khan warned that if the number of infected people continue to rise, Pakistan may not have the necessary facilities to properly handle the situation. He also advised people not to buy food in bulk to avoid shortages.

Hours before Khan’s press conference, millions of Pakistanis attended Friday Prayer at mosques across the country.

RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondents from different cities reported that very few people were wearing masks during the prayers, and that worshippers were seen handshaking and hugging.

The government of Pakistan's worst-hit province of Sindh has announced a three-day lockdown, asking people to stay inside from March 21 to 23.

On the evening of March 21 Pakistan, a country of roughly 220 million people, has confirmed more than 660 cases of coronavirus so far, most of them linked to travel to neighboring Iran, and three deaths.

Pakistan sealed its border with Iran last week. But only after hundreds of pilgrims returned home from the Islamic Republic -- one of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Islamabad has historically failed to contain infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and polio.

– With reporting by the AFP and Radio Mashaal