Human Rights First described the conditions of prisoners of conscience in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison as “notoriously appalling.”
After years of relative quiet, something new is stirring in Bahrain. The kingdom’s security forces seem unsure how to react.
“Conditions in the country’s main prison, Jaw, are notoriously appalling. The jail hosts an explosive mix of young men serving long sentences, many of whom have been tortured. With an official capacity of 1,201, Jaw prison is now conservatively estimated to be holding 2,700 inmates,” Said HRF
They are crammed into cells and complain of regular beatings by guards. Physical and psychological torture have long been systematic. It was no surprise in 2015 when a riot erupted in prison.
Last week, Bahraini authorities said that a COVID outbreak in Jaw had been isolated, the virus contained, and that all positive cases were stable and able to receive medical treatment.
This week, the continued outbreak of COVID in Jau sparked a wave of protest that could signify a turning point for Bahrainis’ human rights.
In street protests across the country, Bahrainis are decrying the dangers their incarcerated sons, husbands, and brothers face from a COVID outbreak at Jaw prison. Protestors, primarily women, are demanding the release of their loved ones.
According to the New York-based organization, Bahrain’s dictatorship, backed by successive U.S. administrations, has increased its repression against peaceful dissent over the last decade. Its leading human rights defenders and political opposition leaders are in exile or imprisoned at Jau.
There are no independent media in the country, and only pro-government political groups are allowed to exist. International human rights groups are banned, and Human Rights First has been shut out of the country since 2012.
Large-scale demonstrations for human rights and democracy in Bahrain were violently suppressed in 2011 but never stopped entirely. Still, the latest protests are more significant than any recent demonstration, representing a new surge of energy. So far, police have patrolled the protests without breaking them up.
While some Congress members have consistently raised concerns about Bahrain’s human rights record, neither the White House, Pentagon, nor State Department has done much over the last decade to press their military allies to reform.
The 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices issued last week by the State Department states that in Bahrain, “impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces,” when U.S. officials know that no senior official in Bahraini security forces is being held accountable for the routine torture.
It’s far too early to know if Bahrain’s pattern of an uprising every decade without systemic change will continue or if these latest signs of resistance are the beginnings of something more.
But this week’s protests look like something different.
And if prisoners or prison staff start to die from COVID, the government might have a whole new problem on its hands.