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A woman receives a Covid-19 vaccine at a shopping mall in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: EPA

Chinese vaccines meant for Indonesian prison stolen and sold to public

  • Indonesian police have arrested four people, including a doctor at Tanjung Gusta Prison in Medan, accusing them of stealing and reselling more than 1,000 vaccines meant for inmates and staff
  • Scandal, which follows uproar over reused nose swabs at a North Sumatra airport, has highlighted the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in Indonesian jails
Four people have been arrested on suspicion of stealing Covid-19 vaccines meant for the inmates and staff of an Indonesian prison and selling them on to members of the public.
The three civil servants and a property agent, arrested on May 21, had resold 1,085 of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines at 250,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$17) each, according to police.

Two of the suspects, identified only as IW and KS, who were working as doctors at Tanjung Gusta Prison in Medan and the North Sumatra Public Health Office respectively, administered the vaccines to members of the public on 15 separate occasions in both Medan and Jakarta, said North Sumatra’s Police Chief, RZ Panca Putra Simanjuntak.

The vaccines were supposed to have been used exclusively within the North Sumatra prison system.

This is the second time North Sumatra has been rocked by a Covid-19 corruption scandal this month. At the beginning of May it emerged that cotton swabs used to administer Covid-19 rapid tests to passengers at Kualanamu International Airport had been reused after being washed and repackaged.

Reused nose swabs: Indonesian firm faces lawsuit over Covid-19 test ‘fraud’

The scandal at Tanjung Gusta has once again put the spotlight on what are widespread problems over corruption and sanitation within Indonesia’s vastly overcrowded prison system.

Judith Jacob, a security analyst and researcher at the London School of Economics, described Indonesian prisons as “a health hazard” that were overcapacity and understaffed.

“From what I have seen, it would be impossible to social distance or isolate infected prisoners. This isn’t unique to Indonesia but ensuring the well-being of prisoners is not high on the government’s list of priorities, pandemic or otherwise,” Jacob said.

Indonesia has recorded more than 1,775,000 cases of coronavirus to date, and there have been outbreaks at prisons across the country. Kerobokan Prison, on the island of Bali, reported more than 100 infections in October 2020.

Riot police prepare to enter Pekanbaru prison, after about 200 inmates broke out of the overcrowded facility in western Indonesia. Photo: AFP

Usman Hamid, the director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said prisoners “must not be forgotten” during the pandemic.

“Because Indonesian prisons are overcrowded, they clearly face systemic challenges in preventing the spread of the virus. The buying and selling of vaccines that were meant for prison inmates is a serious breach of human rights.”

In August 2020, Human Rights Watch Indonesia reported that the country’s prisons held almost 270,000 inmates at the start of the pandemic, more than double their capacity of 133,000, and that Covid-19 was easily spread within jails because of wider issues over poor access to water, sanitation and general hygiene.

“Covid-19 has further exposed years of lack of health services in prisons,” said Hamid. “The government and prison authorities are unable or unwilling to address the increasing need for preventive health measures and medical services for prisoners. During the initial phase of the pandemic, Amnesty International found that detainees in many countries could not get tested for Covid-19 due to acute shortages, and there were even some countries that refused medical treatment for a number of detainees, such as in Iran and Turkey. Indonesia must not be allowed to be like that.”

In April 2020, Yasonna Laoly, Indonesia’s Minister for Law and Human Rights, had announced that 50,000 prisoners were to be released early to curb the spread of the virus, and that prison visits would be cancelled.

Indonesia's Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly. Photo: Reuters

But by July 2020, some 234,000 inmates were still incarcerated, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

One prisoner who secured early release in May 2020 near the beginning of the pandemic was Rizky, a local activist who spent two months and 14 days in Medan’s Tanjung Gusta Prison for violating the controversial Electronic Information and Transactions Law. The law was created in 2008 to monitor online issues such as phishing, but critics say it has increasingly been used to clamp down on free speech and freedom of expression in recent years.

Rizky described conditions at the prison as substandard, with 20 to 30 men packed into cells meant for a maximum of 15.

He was surprised by the news of the stolen vaccines, saying those involved had compromised the human rights of the prisoners. But he added that the “authorities at Tanjung Gusta did that with everything else as well, including our food”.

Coronavirus: Indonesia faces virus ‘time bomb’ after Eid

“We only got rice with cabbage and salted fish for our meals every day. When the pandemic hit, they only sprayed the prison once. We were not given hand sanitiser or masks and, in my opinion, the prison is not doing everything possible to fulfil its duty of care to prisoners,” Rizky said.

Police Chief Simanjuntak noted that Indonesia, which has a population of more than 270 million, had vaccinated relatively few people – around 10 million people have been fully vaccinated. However, he said this was no reason to buy or sell vaccines on the black market.

“People do not need to worry because the government has guaranteed that the community will be given vaccines in stages. Therefore, there is no need to compete, by paying certain parties to get vaccines,” said the police chief.

Indonesia is not the only regional country to have faced Covid-19 related problems in its prisons.

In Thailand, 1,795 prisoners at Bangkok’s Remand Prison and 1,040 at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution recently tested positive for coronavirus, and hundreds more are thought to have been infected at other institutions in Chiang Mai and Narathiwat. Since the pandemic began, more than 10,000 prisoners have been affected.

Thailand is now considering early release for 50,000 prisoners, although the justice ministry said on May 17 that it would focus on vaccinating inmates and staff.

On May 23, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for authorities in Cambodia “to urgently address the Covid-19 outbreak in prisons” following positive tests by 34 inmates at Preah Sihanouk Provincial Prison. The two groups said that “hundreds of additional prisoners in the overcrowded facility have tested positive, though the government has not disclosed the total number”.

Cambodia recently began a campaign to vaccinate all of its nearly 39,000 prisoners.

Meanwhile, Malaysia has pledged to release more than 11,000 detainees. However, the government has been criticised for arresting and remanding thousands of citizens for violating its Movement Control Order. On March 13 alone, there were 337 arrests for violating the order, according to Senior Minister for Security, Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

Further afield, Turkey has released over 100,000 prisoners since the pandemic began and Iran has temporarily released over 85,000, according to official figures.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Four arrested over jail vaccines racket