Covid-19 and The Courts

A sanitation worker fumigates using sodium hypochlorite in a courtroom to fight the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Milimani commercial courts in Nairobi, Kenya, July 17, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, authoritarian states have used the pandemic as a pretext to silence dissent. Some have done so under the guise of fighting ‘disinformation’; others under cover of emergency laws.

Monitoring the Impact on Free Speech

Journalists, bloggers, artists, doctors, and ordinary citizens have been arrested for criticizing their government’s policies—or even for just telling the world about the virus.  TrialWatch is committed to monitoring and exposing injustice in their trials and has monitored trials including a journalist convicted of ‘fake news’ in Russia, and a journalist dealing with what seem to be politically motivated charges in India after she criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic, and trials of people who posted criticisms on social media.


Read More on the Covid Crackdown on Press Freedom


Access to Justice

This case shows the pitfalls of virtual trials. The defendant’s rights were repeatedly violated as a result of poor connectivity and the authorities’ failure to provide a way for him to consult with his lawyers.

Vânia Costa Ramos, Legal Expert in the case of Alnur Ilyashev

Once arrested, COVID is used as a pretext for holding closed court sessions, with little or no public access — or even denying the defendant the right to appear in person. For instance, in Morocco, the authorities sought to hold the first hearing in Omar Radi’s case virtually based on the prevalence of COVID-19. This makes it much harder to make sure people’s fair trial rights are being respected, and to hold justice systems accountable for unfair sentencing and convictions.

The authorities also invoke the pandemic to limit defendants’ access to their lawyers. For instance, in the case of a Crimean Tatar human rights defender tried in Russia on terrorism charges, the Russian authorities justified limitations on lawyer visits by invoking the pandemic, but the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to which CFJ took his case after his unfair conviction, found that even “[i]f the exigencies of the prevailing public health emergency require restrictions on physical contact, States must ensure the availability of other ways for legal counsel to communicate with their client.”

TrialWatch is also monitoring the fairness of trials that do ultimately take place virtually. In Kazakhstan, activist Alnur Ilyashev was convicted of “spreading false information during an emergency” for social media posts critical of the authorities, including their response to COVID-19. His trial was conducted by video conference due to the pandemic but the manner in which these remote proceedings were organized violated his rights — including because participants were barely audible on numerous occasions and defense counsel was unable to consult their client.

Unsafe Detention

Despite closing court rooms and restricting access to trials, many countries are not doing basic things to protect defendants’ health – such as releasing people on bail instead of holding them in detention.

TrialWatch has exposed violations of defendants’ rights that have implications for their health in multiple countries. In Belarus, TrialWatch reporting on fifteen post-election trials documented how “[o]ne of the defendants observed two detainees with respiratory symptoms in her cell; a doctor was not called for two days, after their symptoms had worsened, and the sick inmates were not isolated” and how defendants were not given masks during their pre-trial detention.

In Thailand, protest leaders who have been in pre-trial detention on charges including ‘insulting royalty’ have contracted COVID. As Sirikan Charoensiri, lawyer at Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, explained, “I am extremely concerned about their conditions, particularly because of the surge in COVID-19 cases in prisons across the country.”

In Russia, Crimean Tatar human rights defenders were not given appropriate medical treatment despite their concerns—expressed repeatedly in court — that they are sick and have potentially contracted COVID-19.