In the debate and analysis concerning the interaction between the coronavirus pandemic and organized crime, the focus has largely been on illicit economies and the criminal actors that operate in them. This week, #CovidCrimeWatch turns its attention to the other side of the equation: the state’s response. The pandemic has affected the capacity of key arms of the state that are usually charged with the response to transnational organized crime. And much of the question of how bad the impact of coronavirus and the lockdown has been has hinged on the response choices and approaches taken by states. Here, we explore the apparent rise in brutality employed by polices forces around the world as they attempt to enforce lockdown measures, as well as the impact of the pandemic on criminal-justice systems. We look at the issue of corruption and the risks this poses to government responses. And we examine media censorship and surveillance of citizens, both now and in the future.

Accompanying this week’s newsletter, we have published a number of blog pieces on the theme of government responses, including on corruption, criminal-justice systems, the deployment of the military, policing and issues relating to wildlife crime enforcement in Africa. Finally, in the latest episode of the GI-TOC podcast series, ‘The Impact: Coronavirus and Organized Crime’, we discuss corruption and how COVID has impacted on corruption.

LAW ENFORCEMENT TAKING LIBERTIES

The pandemic has precipitated a raft of new legislation intended to contain the spread of the virus, but the success of the measures depends on a number of factors, including citizens’ willingness to observe them and the effective enforcement of the new regulations, which in most nations entail stay-at-home orders and curfews.

Although excessive use of force by the police is nothing new, the incidence of disproportionate enforcement appears to have been exacerbated by the crisis many countries have found themselves in. In Uganda, there have been numerous reports of police brutality in the way the security forces have sought to enforce the curfew that has been in place since the beginning of April. In one reported incident, an officer approached a street vendor, who was in the process of packing away in time for the curfew, and kicked over a saucepan filled with boiling oil, leaving her with burns across her face, chest, arms and legs.

In Nigeria, the country’s human-rights body reported that in the first two weeks of lockdown, police had killed 18 people – a third more deaths than those attributable to the virus. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a video circulating on Twitter showed a police officer physically assaulting a taxi driver for violating the one-passenger limit introduced to reduce transmission of the virus. Meanwhile, numerous allegations of police brutality have surfaced in other countries across the continent, including Senegal, South Africa and Kenya, among others.

But violence at the hands of the police is by no means limited to Africa. In Honduras, military police beat, shot and killed an individual who had left his home in contravention of the lockdown restrictions. This did not, unfortunately, appear to be an isolated incident, as several reports of police brutality, including the use of electric shock weapons and tear gas, have come to light in that country. In France, the police have been accused of using heavy-handed tactics in enforcing lockdown restrictions in some of the country’s poorer neighbourhoods. Videos show incidents of excessive force, harassment, and verbal abuse and humiliation, which, according to a statement by Amnesty International, constitute ‘violations of international law relating to human rights’.

During the pandemic, the apparent worldwide increase in police brutality has led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene, calling on governments to refrain from violating fundamental human rights ‘under the guise of exceptional or emergency measures’, and reminding states that ‘emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power’. America is currently gripped by nationwide protests triggered by – among several other contemporaneous factors – police brutality, just as the heavily enforced lockdowns across the country are coming to an end.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE DISRUPTIONS

Law enforcement is not the only pillar of criminal justice systems to have adapted, in most instances for the worse, to the pandemic. Prison systems around the world have been facing the strain of the outbreak as prisons have become ‘petri dishes’ for the virus. Social distancing in incarceration is almost impossible, thus facilitating the spread of COVID-19, which has proved particularly troublesome in the United States, the country with the highest number of inmates in the world.

To reduce to the risk of contagion within prisons, several countries across the world have released a significant number of prisoners. By mid-April, over 16 000 inmates in the United States had either been released or were due for release.

In Italy, the virus outbreak put an enormous strain on the prison system, not just as a result of the risk of contagion itself, but because of the riots that subsequently broke out in prisons across the country. In order to contain the spread of the virus, prison authorities introduced measures to restrict family visits, which, together with fears surrounding the spread of the disease, led to protests and riots that culminated in the escape of 72 inmates and the deaths of 14. Almost 500 prisoners serving time under the country’s high-security prison regime (including those serving sentences for serious and organized crime) were released, but, following widespread condemnation, a government decree was introduced that allowed judges the discretion to send prisoners back into incarceration.

As early as mid-March, Iran had released, albeit temporarily, around 85 000 inmates from its prison system to help alleviate the impact of the coronavirus. In Turkey, around 90 000 prisoners were set for release at the end of April, half on a temporary basis and the other half permanently, in order to contain the spread of the virus within the country’s overcrowded prison system.

Certain countries in Latin America do not appear to have heeded warning calls relating to the risk of contagion within prisons. As we outlined in a previous newsletter, El Salvador hit the headlines in April when photos emerged – or rather, were published by the government – of hundreds of gang members packed together in prisons, under the orders of President Nayib Bukele, as punishment for an outbreak of prison violence. Similar conditions of overcrowded prisons were observed in Honduras.

In addition to police forces’ conduct and prison systems, the pandemic has also had an impact on justice systems in several countries. In February, at the start of the outbreak of the coronavirus in East Asia, the government of South Korea decided to temporarily shut down all courts in the country, as well as its parliament. In early March, Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court postponed the trial of Alieu Kosiah, former Liberian rebel leader and alleged perpetrator of war crimes, as a result of the rapid spread of COVID-19, in order to protect those participating in the trial. In England and Wales, the Criminal Bar Association has warned of a backlog of 40 000 criminal cases. (Although pressure on the court system in the United Kingdom has been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, one should note that even back in December 2019, the countries were experiencing a backlog of over 37 000 criminal cases.)

While some of the problems facing criminal-justice systems around the world are not new, the pandemic has put an enormous amount of additional pressure on them, arguably at a time when they are needed most, given the rise in organized crime seen in a number of countries worldwide during this period. With many countries operating with a criminal-justice system in a state of near-paralysis, and custodial sentences no longer an option for the majority of offences, it would appear to be somewhat of an open day for organized crime.

THAT’S ENOUGH FREEDOM FOR YOU!

One of the most fundamental pillars of an effective response to organized crime is a free media that is permitted to conduct investigations into criminal activity and hold the powers that be to account. Since the coronavirus outbreak took hold, we have witnessed a pattern of increasing attacks on journalists and muzzling of press freedom all over the world.

In Serbia, the government took extraordinary action to centralize – or more cynically, to control – the flow of information with regard to the coronavirus crisis. At the beginning of April, new rules introduced by the government meant that all local officials and politicians, and all those working on the frontline in the fight against the pandemic, are now obliged to pass any information pertaining to the virus to the central Crisis Staff, which is led by the prime minister. It is at the discretion of this government-led body to disseminate the information as it sees fit.

Elsewhere, on 5 March, journalist Kaka Touda Mamane Goni was arrested in Niger, following a complaint that was lodged about one of his reports on a suspected case of COVID-19 in a hospital in Niamey. The state intended to try the journalist on charges of ‘dissemination of data likely to disturb public order’, under the country’s cybercrime legislation. On 26 March, Kaka Touda was found guilty of publishing false news and was served with a three-month suspended sentence.

In Myanmar, a journalist has been handed a two-year prison sentence for reporting the death of an individual from COVID-19 in the state of Karen – a false allegation, according to a government that has been criticized for its seemingly less than credible official data on COVID-19 fatalities. As well as jailing journalists, the state imposed a block on a number of websites they deemed to be ‘fake news’, including several of the country’s leading news outlets.

Attacks on the freedom of the press have been only too common amid the global pandemic, with seemingly no continent escaping the metaphorical muzzle of autocratic regimes determined to suppress the reality facing their countries. The Iranian government introduced a ban on the printing of all newspapers, supposedly in order to contain the spread of the virus. In April, journalists in Hungary raised concerns that new legislation introduced by the Orbán government would be used to remove press freedom, with one section of the bill providing for up to five years’ incarceration for those purportedly spreading misinformation. It appears as though their fears were well founded, as reports have surfaced of several people being arrested and detained over posts made on social media. Journalists have also been arrested in Egypt, Rwanda and China, among many other nations worldwide.

Attacks on the media, however, are not the only manifestation of the authoritarianism that has been creeping into societies the world over. Governments have increasingly sought to deny their citizens the right to protest, often using the coronavirus pandemic as a cover. In Pakistan, at least 50 doctors were arrested for protesting against the failure of the government to provide them with adequate and sufficient personal protective equipment. In Hong Kong, citizens staging pro-democracy protests have been issued with sizeable fines for allegedly breaking lockdown rules on gatherings of more than eight people, with the authorities citing the gathering for a ‘common purpose’ as the transgression. Critics, however, have pointed out that the ordinance makes no mention of any rules pertaining to a gathering for a ‘common purpose’.

While attacks on the freedom of the press, as well as citizens’ freedom, are nothing new, they are another factor that erode civil liberties and civil society. Civil society is a crucial player in the fight against organized crime, and the systematic repression and targeting of the media will significantly weaken its ability to carry out independent investigations and to discharge its role as an independent monitor of state power.

READ MORE:

Coronavirus: The perfect incubator for corruption in our health systems? 7 key Covid-19 points to consider

Coronavirus in Kenya: Fearing ‘money heists’ amid pandemic

800 billion reasons to be careful: SA’s COVID-19 rescue package

Coronavirus: Corruption in health care could get in the way of Nigeria’s response

For autocrats, and others, coronavirus is a chance to grab even more power

Europe’s other coronavirus victim: Information and data rights

#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.


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Cover: Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash