Coronavirus-related restrictions are being used as an excuse for police brutality and government overreach, the United Nations’ human rights office warned Monday.

“In some countries, thousands have also been detained for curfew violations, a practice that is both unnecessary and unsafe,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement. “Jails and prisons are high risk environments, and states should focus on releasing whoever can be safely released, not detaining more people.”

The United Nations has received numerous reports of police using violence to enforce curfews and lockdowns, sometimes with lethal consequences, the statement said. Often, these aggressive measures target “the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population,” who are at risk of dying because of measures that were ostensibly put in place to save their lives, Bachelet said.

While countries have wide latitude to introduce restrictions that will safeguard public health, Bachelet noted that “shooting, detaining, or abusing someone for breaking a curfew because they are desperately searching for food is clearly an unacceptable and unlawful response.”

Some governments have introduced vaguely worded laws that come with harsh sentences, leading to fears that they will be selectively used to clamp down on critics, Bachelet said. Others appear to be using the virus as cover for introducing restrictions on basic freedoms and public spaces.

At Monday’s briefing, officials identified Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Peru, Honduras, Jordan, Morocco, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Hungary as key areas of concern. But “there are probably several dozen more we could have highlighted,” said Georgette Gagnon, the director of field operations for the U.N.’s human rights office.

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