Families of foreign prisoners in China worry about their health, safety amid Shanghai’s devastating COVID-19 lockdown 

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Originally published by The Globe and Mail on April 28, 2022

As coronavirus cases spiked in Shanghai and the Chinese financial centre went into lockdown this month, sparking food shortages and chaos at hospitals across the city, Harrison Li worried for his father.

Kai Li has been locked up Shanghai’s Qingpu prison since 2018, on what his family says are trumped-up and politically motivated espionage charges against the naturalized U.S. citizen.

At 60, Kai suffers from a number of health issues and recently had a stroke. He’s not vaccinated, and would be at risk of serious illness were he to catch COVID-19.

Harrison said that given the widespread reports of people in Shanghai who are unable to procure basic necessities, “I shudder to think of how much worse conditions might be in prison.”

Charlene McMahon, whose son David is imprisoned in Qingpu on what an investigation showed to be dubious charges, said she too worried about his well-being. She told The Globe that David complained in the past of not having warm clothes in winter, not getting access to medical and dental services, and being denied physical exercise.

Since the pandemic began, prisons around the world have seen devastating COVID-19 outbreaks. Authorities in China have responded to this risk by further cutting off inmates from the outside world, reducing the ability of prisoners – both foreign and Chinese – to raise the alarm about abuses or poor care.

“At this stage in the pandemic, it’s quite possible that prisons might be relatively safe places to be, since they have very limited contact with the broader community and strict protocols,” said William Nee, a U.S.-based research and advocacy co-ordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

“The flip side is, though, that if a major outbreak did happen, the spread of the virus and potential sickness and death could be disastrous and the outside world would probably never know about it.”

CHRD has documented numerous instances of political prisoners being denied visits or phone calls with family and lawyers on COVID-19 grounds. Some prisoners in Shanghai also appear to have had their release delayed without explanation during the current lockdown.

The families of those inside often only have a limited idea of what conditions are like for their loved ones. Since 2020, in-person consular visits have been stopped in most prisons, meaning foreign inmates are limited to short, 5-7 minute phone calls every week or so. Prisoners can write letters, but like calls, these are monitored and subject to potential censorship by the authorities.

For those imprisoned in Shanghai and other cities where COVID-19 lockdowns are in force, even those limited communication methods have been cut off. According to an e-mail from U.S. diplomats seen by The Globe, prisoners in Qingpu are currently confined to their cells and denied phone access. U.S. officials said they were pushing for well-being reports on all citizens in the prison and for the resumption of phone contact with them.

Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said “Chinese authorities continue to strictly impose various control and quarantine measures across the country, including in prisons and detention centres.” Ms. Tremblay said the government is providing consular assistance to detained Canadians.

Harrison said that “with the complete lack of connection to the outside world, there is no way to be sure my father continues to receive adequate food and medicine.” He said his father’s cell holds 12 prisoners in a small space with no climate control and they “are confined to these cells 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No more outdoor exercise or ability to purchase anything from the commissary.”

Harrison said his father previously told him, through consular officials, that earlier COVID-19 waves had led to food shortages in the prison and inmates not receiving packages from outside.

Qingpu authorities did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the prison is no stranger to accusations of mistreatment.

Former detainees have spoken out about poor conditions, cramped cells, inadequate medical care, and forced labour. In 2019, the prison made global headlines after a U.K. family discovered a cry for help inside a Christmas card made by inmates. At the time, the Chinese government denied the use of forced labour, though former inmates and human-rights organizations have challenged this assertion.

For those whose family members are locked up elsewhere in China, the situation in Shanghai is a worrying sign of what may be to come, said Haseenah Koyakutty, whose brother Kunju Jamaludeen is jailed in Guangzhou.

A Singaporean former soccer coach, Mr. Jamaludeen, 65, was jailed in 2015 on drug smuggling charges; he denies knowledge of the drugs he transported. He suffers from necrosis of the hip and is unable to walk or get dressed without help from other prisoners.

Ms. Koyakutty said she used to visit as often as she could, but since the pandemic, she has not been able to travel to China and what access the family has is limited to five-minute phone calls once a week. They have attempted repeatedly to push for video calls, but without any success.

“For two years we haven’t seen his face,” she said. “They say they cannot allow video access for ‘security reasons’.”

Ms. Koyakutty feared for her brother’s health, saying that he was unvaccinated “but we don’t know whether it’s because of his medical condition. We don’t even know what type of medication he’s on.”

All the families interviewed for this story spoke of the frustrations of dealing with consular officials who are often unwilling or unable to push for greater access to or information about their loved ones. Activists say governments that are often highly critical of China’s criminal justice system in the abstract do not always take every step available to free their citizens from its grips, such as pushing for medical paroles or intervening politically.

“If China doesn’t get any pressure they’re just not going to do anything,” said Ms. Koyakutty, who has lobbied the Singapore government to act on her brother’s behalf. She said China has shown a willingness to transfer prisoners on a case-by-case basis and her brother qualifies for leniency as he’s reached the 65-year-old age threshold, but the Singaporean authorities declined her request.

Both Mr. Li and Mr. McMahon’s families have called on the Biden administration to act on their cases, with little success.

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