Myanmar:  The right to life and health of prisoners must be protected amidst a worsening COVID-19 situation 

Today, the ICJ called on the Myanmar military authorities to immediately release many arbitrarily detained in Insein prison and elsewhere whose right to life and health are at great risk, arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who remain in detention must be provided access to adequate medical treatment and health care.

“Detainees are exposed to risks and have lost their lives due to failure of the Myanmar military government to uphold the right to health,” said Mandira Sharma, Senior International Legal Adviser at the ICJ.

The ICJ said that in the context of a rapidly rising incidence of COVID-19 cases, the Myanmar government had been utterly derelict in its obligation to protect life and health, including by hindering medical treatment to detainees. Doctors providing free medical services have been arrested and charged under section 505A of the Penal Code that was amended by the military authority after assuming power. This section criminalizes comments that “cause fear,” spread “false news, [or] agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee.”

At least 72 medical workers, including the former head of the vaccination programme have reportedly been detained. Various reports have alleged that there are more than 600 arrest warrants issued against medical workers.

COVID-19 has spread significantly within prisons. The military government had already recorded nine COVID-related deaths of inmates by 25 July 2021 and since mid-July confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths have been rising throughout Myanmar, making it likely the number of cases in prisons has increased as well.

On 23 July, a number of people detained for political reasons in the Insein Prison staged a protest to object to poor conditions in the prison, including overcrowding and lack of protective measures and medical treatment for prisoners infected by COVID-19. This protest was violently supressed by security personnel, resulting in several fatalities. More than a dozen political prisoners have reportedly been placed in solitary confinement. 

“The military regime should immediately stop using unlawful force against detainees and ensure their right to health, inextricably linked to their right to life,” Mandira Sharma added. 

Myanmar has been hit hard by the third wave of COVID-19, recording some 274,155 cases and 7,507 deaths as of 26 July 2021 according to the military government-controlled Ministry of Health and Sports. These figures are believed to be an underestimate, as local charities assisting in the transport of dead bodies have estimated they transport around one thousand dead bodies daily and there has been limited testing for COVID-19.

Under international human rights law, Myanmar has the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health for everyone under its jurisdiction, including detainees. Myanmar prisons face a significant problem of overcrowding, with numerous prisons operating at double or three times their capacity, and unsanitary conditions thereby increasing the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

The ICJ calls upon the Myanmar military government to uphold its obligations under international law and release all illegally held detainees and to ensure that persons in detention have full access to adequate medical treatment, particularly for COVID-19.

For more information on the right to health and COVID-19 responses in relation to persons deprived of their liberty see the ICJ Report “Living like People Who Die Slowly: The Need for Right to Health Compliant COVID-19 Responses” in English and Burmese.


Mandira Sharma, Senior International Legal Advisor, South Asia and Myanmar, t: +9779851048475; e: mandira.sharma(a)

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