The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on access to food. Gender-based violence remained widespread, and increasing numbers of women and girls underwent unsafe abortions. A woman faced imprisonment for consensual same-sex relations. Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of children, were subjected to prolonged pre-trial detention in appalling conditions. The right to freedom of expression was restricted, and the authorities imposed measures to prevent broadcasters from sharing information about COVID-19.
On 22 March, the President declared a state of emergency in view of the COVID-19 outbreak. It was extended periodically until 18 October.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on livelihoods and household incomes. In June, the National Institute of Statistics said that over 64% of households surveyed said their incomes had decreased significantly; around 60% said they did not have enough food; and some 50%, in urban areas, had difficulty buying rice during lockdown, mainly due to a sudden increase in price.
In the south, 1.5 million people were in need of immediate emergency food assistance following three years of drought-affected harvests.
Despite the government’s recent efforts to address women’s rights, including by introducing a new law, 009/2019, in December 2019, to combat gender-based violence, the practice remained widespread. Local organizations reported an increase in the number of domestic violence cases during lockdown.
The NGO Doctors of the World (MdM) said that the increase in gender-based violence during lockdown had led to an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies and to more women and girls undergoing unsafe abortions. Abortion remained a criminal offence, and MdM said that unsafe abortions were the second main cause of maternal mortality in the country after post-partum haemorrhage.
Gay and lesbian sexual relations remained taboo in Malagasy society, and the government consistently failed to protect LGBTI people from stigmatization and discrimination.
On 10 March, a 33-year-old woman was put in pre-trial detention in Antanimora Prison, on charges of “corruption of minors” for having consensual same-sex relations with a 19-year-old woman. Her trial was postponed at least four times, but she was finally acquitted on the benefit of the doubt in December. Article 331 of the Penal Code carries a prison term of two to five years and a hefty fine for “anyone who has committed an indecent or unnatural act with an individual of the same sex, under the age of 21 years”. The age of consent for heterosexual sex, on the other hand, was 14.
Despite promises made by the President in 2019, excessive use of prolonged pre-trial detention and severe prison overcrowding continued. Thousands of people continued to be detained for years without trial, and by May, pre-trial detainees constituted 55% of the prison population. By August, Madagascar’s prisons, which had a capacity for 10,360 inmates, held 27,327 people, including 734 children, in inhumane conditions.
In June, the President pardoned around 1,700 convicted prisoners. These included: people convicted of minor offences who had three months or less left on their sentence; women over 55 and men over 60 who had been in prison for 10 years or more; and children who had served at least half their sentence.
Meanwhile, thousands continued in prolonged pre-trial detention, which was used extensively against perpetrators of minor offences. In August, 60% of women and girls in prison were pre-trial detainees, and 75% of all children in prison were in pre-trial detention.
The right of pre-trial detainees to a fair trial was violated. In practice, legal aid was not available, despite legal provisions which guaranteed the right to legal defence at all stages of the process. They were therefore denied access to information about their rights, or the progress of their cases.
In August, 88 inmates escaped from the Farafangana Prison in the southeast, apparently in protest against pre-trial detention, including its use against people who had been charged with petty offences, severe overcrowding and squalid conditions, and widespread reports of corruption within the prison system which forced them to pay bribes to various people within the system to obtain family visits, among other things. Local sources reported that the detainees had had no family visits since the COVID-19 outbreak. During the escape, the security forces killed 20 detainees, and three more died from their injuries in the following days. Seventeen of them were pre-trial detainees.
On 28 May, Stéphane Ralandison, a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Toamasina University, was arrested and interrogated by the criminal section of the gendarmerie’s Toamasina Brigade. The following day, he was summoned to the Toamasina Court and accused of murdering his colleague, Dr Daniel Randriamiarivonjy who, according to hospital staff, hanged himself on 24 May. However, during Stéphane Ralandison’s three-hour interrogation, he was also questioned about a recent LinkedIn post in which he had criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the risks of disregarding scientific research into cures, among other things. Ultimately, no charges were brought against him.
On 16 July, Harry Laurent Rahajason, a former journalist and Communication Minister in the previous government, was arrested along with four other people and put in pre-trial detention in Antanimora Prison in the capital, Antananarivo. He was charged with undermining state security in connection with organizing and funding a protest that allegedly took place in July, despite state emergency regulations which banned such events. The protest was connected to the case of Berija Ravelomanantsoa, a student leader, who had been held in pre-trial detention since 8 June. On 30 September, Berija Ravelomanantsoa was convicted under the Cybercrime Law of undermining the state and insulting the President on Facebook and sentenced to 44 months in prison. Harry Laurent Rahajason and his four co-accused were sentenced to 44 months’ imprisonment on 15 October.
After the COVID-19 outbreak, the government took drastic measures to control information shared by the media and individuals. It evoked Law 91-011 of 1991 – which was intended to be applied in exceptional circumstances – and permitted the media to share only official government information. Other restrictive measures included prohibiting radio stations from broadcasting phone-in shows.
On 4 April, Arphine Helisoa, a journalist perceived to be affiliated with the opposition, was arrested and put in pre-trial detention in Antanimora Prison. She was charged, for the second time since 2019, with spreading fake news and inciting hatred against the President. She was released one month later, following a presidential amnesty for imprisoned journalists, although it was unclear whether the charges were dropped. Later that month, a television presenter, known as “Sabrina”, who worked for the Kolo Channel, was charged with spreading fake news on social media about the number of COVID-19 cases in the country. She was put in pre-trial detention in Antanimora Prison and released on 6 May under the presidential amnesty.
On 6 April the pro-opposition Real TV channel tried to broadcast a repeat interview with former President Ravalomanana in which he criticized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The broadcast failed because the transmitter and antenna had been damaged. According to Reporters Without Borders, the incident followed soon after the Ministry of Communication and Culture warned Real TV and two other opposition media outlets not to report on COVID-19. The warning noted that the stations had failed to air live transmissions of the state media’s news bulletins on the pandemic.