Authoritarian leaders are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to lock up dissenters and grab power, human rights experts warn
Country leaders, some of them from authoritarian regimes, are being accused of using the coronavirus pandemic to consolidate power and crack down on dissenters.
In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a state of emergency that shut down the courts — including his own corruption trial — and allowed Shin Bet security forces to start tracking quarantine violators using their cellphones.
Later in the month, Hungary's parliament voted to cancel elections, suspend its own legislative power, and grant Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the right to rule by decree indefinitely, all under the premise of fighting COVID-19. It also introduced five-year jail sentences for anyone spreading "fake news" about the virus.
Last week, Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev authorized a rapid and strict military draft that the Defense Ministry said would ensure "the effective and complete protection of the health of our people." Recruits are being charged with disinfecting spaces and patrolling streets during the lockdown.
Emin Abbasov, a human rights attorney in Azerbaijan, said emergency measures can threaten civil liberties anywhere. But the risk is greatest in countries with dictatorships and weak democracies.
"The restrictive measures imposed on civil liberties take place outside the accountability of those who exercise them — without effective parliamentary control and an independent judiciary," Abbasov told Business Insider.
In many places, the situation is exacerbated by the absence of a free press.
"In the absence of such guarantees, people do not have the opportunity to assess the necessity, adequacy, and appropriateness of measures taken in the event of a pandemic," Abbasov said.
Azerbaijan's leader threatens to root out the country's 'enemies'
In his 16-year tenure as president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev has faced numerous accusations of corruption, including vote-rigging, human rights abuses, and involvement in a massive $2 billion bribery scheme to whitewash the country's image abroad. As COVID-19 spread in March, Aliyev warned the pandemic might require him to purge the nation of "enemies."
"Where do these provocations come from? From the very fifth column, from the enemies who are among us," he said during a March 19 speech to mark Nowruz, the Persian New Year. "The elements calling themselves opposition, the traitors who receive money from abroad. Their main goal is to destroy Azerbaijan."
Aliyev added that he was considering a state of emergency and that, during the crisis, "the rules of completely new relationships will apply."
Less than a week later, on March 25, police arrested opposition leader Tofig Yagublu on hooliganism charges that Human Rights Watch called "spurious."
"The Azerbaijani government has a longstanding pattern of pursuing trumped-up charges against government critics in order to silence them," HRW's Giorgi Gogia said in a statement. "The case against Yagublu falls squarely in that pattern."
That same month, police closed the offices of the opposition group D18 in Baku, saying activists could not "gather en masse," even though only four members were present. Several days later, the group was evicted without explanation.
"President Aliyev clearly said that the new reality of the coronavirus does not tolerate the existence of an opposition," Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova told Business Insider.
Ismayilova said others are being summoned to the police and threatened with arrest for writing social media posts about the coronavirus.
In El Salvador, swift action spurs accusations of a 'political emergency'
A full week before El Salvador reported its first novel coronavirus infection, the National Congress approved President Nayib Bukele's request for emergency powers — including closing schools and limiting free speech, assembly, and travel — to contain the disease. He implemented a nationwide lockdown on March 21, the same day the country reported its first COVID-19 patient.
"Looking at the measures that the president has taken, I think this is more of a political emergency than a public health emergency," Mariana Moisa, an anthropologist in San Salvador and member of the Uncomfortable Feminist Collective, told Business Insider.
"At this moment when there's a public health problem, they are putting more emphasis on the militarization of society than they are investing in the healthcare system. There's no guarantee that our rights will be respected."
Bukele promised a $300 stipend to day laborers struggling during the lockdown, but after aid centers became too crowded, he closed them and told citizens to go online or call a toll-free number. On March 30, police in San Salvador used pepper spray to disperse thousands of street vendors and others gathering to demand financial help.
In a televised address on Monday, Bukele warned that security forces would be cracking down further on quarantine violators: "The restrictions are the same, but we are going to be much tougher in enforcing them."
Those who defy the order could have their cars confiscated or be taken to "containment centers" for 30 days, he said, according to Reuters. Bukele added that the lockdown was being extended for 15 days, and he outlined a plan to track virus carriers.
A 14-year-old is among those arrested in Cambodia for talking about the pandemic
Cambodia reported 109 confirmed coronavirus cases on March 31, the same day its parliament submitted state-of-emergency legislation that would allow Prime Minister Hun Sen to order unfettered surveillance of telecommunications and censorship of media reports on COVID-19.
But civil rights activists worry that the measure, expected to pass on Friday, will grant Hun Sen far-reaching authority with little accountability.
"Instead of introducing a hasty and problematic law, the government should focus on enacting measures within their current powers in order to manage the COVID-19 pandemic," Cambodian Center for Human Rights director Chak Sopeaph said.
"Now is a time for action, considered measures, and precautions — not a time for pushing a vague law through parliament that does not include any protections for human rights."
Since the start of the year, at least 17 people have been arrested in the country for sharing information about COVID-19, Al Jazeera reported, including members of the defunct opposition group Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Most were released after signing pledges to not "spread fake news," but those still in pretrial detention face charges of incitement, conspiracy, and spreading false information.
Police also arrested a 14-year-old girl who posted on social media that she was worried about rumors of a coronavirus outbreak at her school.
"The Cambodian government is misusing the COVID-19 outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government's response," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Uganda is using the coronavirus to fuel homophobia, activists warn
In Uganda, where lawmakers once passed a bill punishing homosexuality with life in prison, the government is accused of using concerns about the virus to fuel homophobia.
On April 1, police raided a shelter for LGBT people in the town of Kyengera, detaining 20 people for failing to follow social distancing. But Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, said those charges were only added later.
"A search was conducted in the shelter in order to find evidence of 'homosexuality,'" Mugisha told Business Insider. "The mayor personally beat up at least two of those arrested as he questioned them about their homosexuality."
President Yoweri Museveni closed schools, churches, and mosques before any COVID-19 cases were reported in Uganda. He also banned public rallies, elections, political gatherings, and weddings for 32 days, and instituted a broad travel ban.
"You have seen how airports were clogged with people. That crowding is the perfect ground for new infections," he said in a March 18 address. "Let us, therefore, move early to avoid the stampede."
Movie theaters, nightclubs, and bars were all shuttered for a month. "These are very dangerous gathering points with the virus around," Museveni added. "Drunkards sit close to one another. They speak with saliva coming out of their mouth. They are a danger to themselves."
After the first infection was confirmed, Museveni closed all of Uganda's borders and police began impounding vehicles of residents trying to leave Kampala.
The question becomes: Will these leaders lift the harsh measures they implemented once the pandemic subsides?
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