Somaliland government urged to release prisoners to prevent more COVID-19 contagion

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The 1 April 2020 presidential pardon was intended to decongest Somaliland’s prisons and help curb the spread of coronavirus. 574 prisoners were pardoned. While commendable, prisons are still overcrowded because the pardon was too limited in scope. It did not include convicted persons in police stations or prisoners who had not served at least half of their sentence. COVID-19 is spreading in Somaliland and overcrowded prisons remain a grave threat to public health. We urge President Muse Bihi Abdi to issue a second, more extensive pardon.

A second pardon would be far more beneficial if the categories of convicted persons considered for pardon include:

1. All deserving prisoners regardless of the length of time spent in prison. The 1 April 2020 pardon excluded prisoners who had not exhausted at least half of their sentence. This meant if a prisoner was sentenced to 2 years, he or she must have been in prison for at least 1 year to be eligible for the pardon. The President’s power of pardon is wide-ranging and there is no law limiting pardons to prisoners who have been in prison for a certain length of time. Therefore, a second pardon should not be restricted to prisoners who have completed half of their sentence.

2. All deserving prisoners who owe compensation to victims, again regardless of the length of time in prison. The pardon in April included prisoners who owed compensation of $10,000 or less to victims. These prisoners would be released but they would still have to pay the victim, which is fair enough. What was not fair, however, was the condition that they must have finished their entire prison sentence to qualify for the pardon. This meant only prisoners who had been in prison for the full length of their whole sentence and owed $10,000 or less in compensation were covered. A second pardon should do away with this unnecessary limitation and extend the pardon to all deserving prisoners, whether or not they have fulfilled their sentence in its entirety.

3. Convicted persons held at police stations. Because Somaliland’s prisons operate above capacity, convicted persons are also housed in police stations. The 1 April pardon did not extend to the men and women waiting out prison sentences in police stations, in effect penalizing them for the absence of sufficient space in prisons. They are, in any case, transferred to prisons as soon as there is available space, as happened immediately after the April pardon. Making sure these prisoners benefit from a second pardon would avoid the prisons becoming overcrowded in the immediate aftermath. It would also reduce the number of people in police stations, which is even more urgent now because new arrests, including for violation of the ban on khat, continue.

Broadening the categories of eligible prisoners for a second pardon by removing limits on time spent in prison, and including convicted persons at police stations, will help to depopulate prisons. It will also respect the spirit of mercy and forgiveness of Ramadan. Horizon Institute commends President Bihi for the action taken to date. We urge him to issue a pardon during Ramadan to forgive convicted persons and, by doing so, continue his efforts to protect prisoners, prison staff, police officers and communities from the coronavirus.

Horizon Institute is working to advance the rule of law and human rights. For inquires, we can be contacted at info@thehorizoninstitute.org. To learn more, visit us at www.thehoirzoninstitute.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

14 May 2020: Hargeisa, Somaliland

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