Conditions of Prisoners in Bahrain During Covid-19

Asia Perri
Guards at Bahrain’s Jau Prison Source: Vice

The Bahraini government has once again found itself under the critique of many human rights activists. The country, situated in the Persian Gulf, is in the hands of a royal family which is known for its human rights violations, despite its accession to many human rights treaties and engagement with UN treaty bodies. Following a short-lived attempt at democracy, the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family has been incredibly oppressive to its Shia citizens. In spite of this, it has enjoyed international support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the UK (which has been called its ‘main protector’). The former two were actively involved in dismantling the 2011 rebellion for democracy, and the latter has provided experts to help maintain security in the country to prevent torture and sexual assault of prisoners.

According to Amnesty International, even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, inmates in prisons like Jau prison did not receive even the minimal requirements for healthcare. In 2019, there was an outbreak of scabies, a disease common in cramped and unclean living spaces. Jau prison is the largest prison in Bahrain, holding hundreds of civil rights activists, journalists, and opposition political leaders in small, overcrowded cells. Despite the government releasing 1,500 prisoners as a form of damage control in March 2020, dozens of prisoners are still cramped into cells of just 13.5m2. This overcrowding is just the first of three ways in which treatment of prisoners falls short of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which also designates that prisoners should be given appropriate accommodation and the ability to talk to their families. In response, many Bahraini human rights NGOs, like Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, called for an immediate release of all political prisoners. The request was denied.

Bahrain Prison Conditions Under COVID-19

With the spread of COVID-19 across the world, the contagion found in Jau prison has the ideal conditions to spread rapidly through the inhabitants. The first cases of COVID in the prison appeared on March 23, when the Bahraini government confirmed that three prisoners had been diagnosed with COVID-19 symptoms. This was both the first and last official disclosure of the number of sick inmates. The overcrowding has made the implementation of social distancing measures nearly impossible. The families of inmates and human rights activists have listed at least 70 prisoners rumored to have COVID-19 symptoms, but recent estimates predict that over 100 prisoners have contracted the disease. The true number of infected inmates cannot be certain due to restrictions on sick prisoners reaching out to family members on the outside. In a statement on March 28, the government claimed that sick prisoners were being isolated and given their weekly calls to their families. However, Amnesty International has disputed this, stating that Bahraini authorities have not been completely honest about the outbreak in Jau prison, adding that denying weekly calls to families causes anxiety.

In response to the spread of COVID-19 within the prison, many prisoners banded together, forming human chains, in a sit-in protest against the lack of supplies given to prisoners to stop the spread of the virus. They were beaten by security forces as a result. Recorded telephone conversations with inmates have revealed that protesting prisoners were brutally beaten with batons by riot police. The official response to these reports has been muddy, with the General Administration of Reform and Rehabilitation stating that security forces had little choice as prisoners blocked corridors and refused to enter their wards over a weeklong period. The National Institution for Human Rights denied the violence entirely.

Prisoners were not given face masks or hand-sanitizer, nor were they tested for COVID-19 regularly. Prisoners were only able to buy hygiene supplies, such as soap, from the prison commissary, but some inmates, such as Sayed Nazir, have been barred from going to the commissary. As a consequence, Nazir has since tested positive for COVID-19. The vaccination situation in the prison has also been unclear. According to the Bahraini government’s statement on March 28, all prisoners that wanted vaccinations received them. However, Amnesty International’s statement in April states that the preventative measures carried out in the prisons have been “woefully inadequate”. 

Protests have also taken place outside of the prisons following the ten-year anniversary of the 2011 pro-democracy insurrection. Families have been protesting for better prison conditions and the release of all political prisoners. They have called for the international community to exert political pressure on the royal family. Many peaceful protesters have been arrested, aggravating the problem. Human rights defenders have called for the government to heed the demands of the protesters, and have condemned the conditions in prisons. Al-Wefaq, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights and BIRD have accused the security forces of using excessive force in dealing with protesters both inside and outside of prisons.

  1. To what extent can the international community take action?
  2. How do we ensure transparency in other governments’ domestic affairs?
  3. Where do we draw the line between intervention and non-intervention when it comes to human rights violations?

Suggested Readings

Amnesty International (2021). “Bahrain: Death of Prisoner a Warning for COVID-19 Failings in Jaw Prison.” Amnesty International, 14 June, 2021.

Al-Shehabi, Saeed (2021). “COVID-19 is Spreading among Bahrain’s Prisoners of Conscience.” Open Democracy, 26 April, 2021.

Bahrain Forum and SALAM DHR (2021). “An Update on Prisoner COVID Cases in Bahrain” Bahrain Forum for Human Rights, 2021.

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Conditions of Prisoners i…

by Asia Perri time to read: 4 min