HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe released at least 320 prisoners from its jails on Saturday to ease congestion in the country’s notoriously overcrowded jails as a second wave of the coronavirus devastates the country.
The move comes amid growing allegations that a government crackdown has sent dozens of activists, journalists and opposition leaders to prisons.
The prisoners were released under an amnesty program established by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in 2018, the year after he seized power, ending decades of the strongarm rule of Robert G. Mugabe. The amnesty does not include prisoners convicted of crimes that include murder, human trafficking, sexual offenses and treason.
Most of those released on Saturday had been convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to Zimbabwe’s Prison and Correctional Service, but were being held in the infamous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. That is the country’s largest correctional facility, and it is known for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
For years, Zimbabwean officials have grappled with severely strained jails that human rights organizations have slammed for unsafe conditions. The country’s prisons have the capacity to house 17,000 prisoners at most, but they held around 22,000 when Mr. Mnangagwa established the amnesty.
Concerns about prison overcrowding grew more urgent when the pandemic struck last year, and the virus threatened to engulf the prison population. From March 2020 to June 2020, the government released 4,208 prisoners under the amnesty order.
The decision to release the latest round of prisoners comes after the variant first identified in South Africa, B.1.351, flooded into Zimbabwe at the start of the year, straining a system that already lacked enough drugs, equipment and medical staff. To date, Zimbabwe has recorded nearly 38,000 coronavirus infections, including 1,551 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In February, the country started a national vaccine campaign with 200,000 doses donated by the Chinese vaccine maker, Sinopharm. The country is set to receive an additional 1.1 million doses as part of Covax, a global sharing program that is distributing vaccines to poor and middle income countries.
Zimbabwean officials have portrayed the vaccine rollout as a major win in the government-led response to the pandemic. But in recent months, human rights organizations have accused leaders of using coronavirus restrictions as a pretext to arrest opposition leaders in a crackdown on dissent.
The crackdown stretches back to at least last summer, when security services shut down the capital, Harare, and arrested several government critics in response to planned protests over alleged corruption and the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Dozens of opposition activists have gone into hiding since.
A U.S. State Department human rights report released last month accused Zimbabwe’s security forces of engaging in serious human rights violations last year — including arbitrary killing and torturing of civilians. The report also noted harsh and life-threatening conditions for political prisoners and detainees inside the country’s prisons.
On Saturday, human rights investigators commended the latest release of some prisoners and called on the Zimbabwean government to expand upon the initiative immediately.
“The Zimbabwe authorities should also release those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, many of whom are political activists whose continued detention is unnecessary and unjustified,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch.