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
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.
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.
Usman Hamid, the director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said prisoners “must not be forgotten” during the pandemic.
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.
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”.
“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.
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.
Cambodia recently began a campaign to vaccinate all of its nearly 39,000 prisoners.
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.