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Marco Rubio, Richard Gere among 500 warning democracy under threat due to coronavirus

"Authoritarian regimes, not surprisingly, are using the crisis to silence critics and tighten their political grip," the letter states.
Committee Chairman Sen. Marco Rubio listens during a Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship hearing to examine implementation of Title I of the CARES Act on June 10, 2020 on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during a Senate hearing on June 10, 2020.Al Drago / Pool via AP file

More than 500 political and human rights leaders signed an open letter Thursday voicing their concerns that the coronavirus pandemic could threaten democracy, as authoritarian leaders use the public health crisis to make sinister power grabs.

Among the signatories were U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; the actor Richard Gere; the Nigerian author and Nobel Prize in literature winner Wole Soyinka; and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.

The virus has so far killed nearly 500,000 people globally, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and concerns have grown about the opaque data collection of tracking apps to unending emergency powers used by nations during the crisis.

A doctor examines a patient in the intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients in the Szent Laszlo hospital in Budapest, Hungary, on April 22, 2020.Zoltan Balogh / MTI via AP file

"The COVID-19 pandemic threatens more than the lives and the livelihoods of people throughout the world. It is also a political crisis that threatens the future of liberal democracy," states the letter organized by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

"Authoritarian regimes, not surprisingly, are using the crisis to silence critics and tighten their political grip."

More than 70 democratic institutions such as the Carter Center and World Uyghur Congress lent their support to the letter entitled: "A Call to Defend Democracy," along with 13 Nobel Laureates and 62 former heads of state.

"Parliaments are being sidelined, journalists are being arrested and harassed, minorities are being scapegoated, and the most vulnerable sectors of the population face alarming new dangers," the letter continued.

In March, Hungary's parliament approved a bill granting Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government extraordinary powers during the pandemic, without setting an end date for their expiration.

The law was criticized by opposition parties along with international civic groups for failing to include an expiration date and for including measures against false information, which could be used by the government to muzzle independent media, critics warned.

In autocratic Turkmenistan, Reporters Without Borders, the international media freedom watchdog, said in March that the country had banned journalists from using the word "coronavirus" -- and anyone wearing masks or talking about the virus were liable to be arrested by plainclothes police.

President Donald Trump raised eyebrows and rattled lawmakers in April when he said: "When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's got to be. It's total," referring to his authority to decide when to reopen the country in the midst of lockdown measures.

His comments swiftly prompted constitutional experts to clarify that his view was incorrect.

A man attends a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang in Hong Kong on Feb. 7, 2020.Kin Cheung / AP

The letter goes on to point the finger at China, where the coronavirus first emerged in the city of Wuhan late in 2019.

A Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who raised the alarm on COVID-19, was punished by police for blowing the whistle. He later died of the coronavirus, causing widespread outcry on Chinese social media.

"It is not a coincidence that the current pandemic began in a country where the free flow of information is stifled," the letter said. "When voices of responsible citizens are suppressed, the results can be deadly."

A separate study by the London School of Economics published this month also found that the nation-state had reasserted itself during the public health crisis and that the pandemic had led to less democratic participation.

The study also warned that a feeling of "not being listened to" among populations could give rise to nationalism and people fleeing to fringe political groups for representation.

"The COVID-19 crisis is an alarming wake-up call, an urgent warning that the freedoms we cherish are at risk and that we must not take them for granted," the letter said.