As the novel coronavirus outbreak has spread across the world, human rights groups have become increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of writers and journalists who remain in prison, many in appalling, life-threatening conditions. In Bahrain a number of such individuals, detained under the country’s poorly defined counterterrorism law, have been denied early release, in stark contrast to other inmates serving considerably longer sentences.
In March, Bahrain released 1,486 detainees, 901 of whom received royal pardons on ‘humanitarian grounds’. The remaining 585 had their prison terms replaced by non-custodial sentences. To date, the releases have excluded opposition leaders, political activists, journalists and human rights defenders, some of whom are elderly or suffer from medical conditions. Those detainees at risk of serious illness if they contract Covid-19 include the respected academic Dr Abduljalil al-Singace (LR, October 2012), a human rights activist and spokesman for the opposition group Al-Haq, and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights defender. Both men have been detained for almost nine years.
In February 2011, pro-democracy demonstrators occupied Pearl Roundabout, a prominent landmark in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. King Hamad declared a state of emergency and a fierce crackdown ensued. Around ninety protesters were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were jailed. Al-Singace and al-Khawaja were among several opposition activists given heavy prison sentences. On 22 June 2011, they were convicted by a special security court of ‘plotting to overthrow the government’ and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Bahrain government does not tolerate any form of dissent and criticising the king can result in a hefty prison sentence. Al-Singace was previously detained in 2010 for criticising Bahrain’s human rights record on his return from a conference in London (LR, October 2010). He and twenty-two others were accused of being members of a ‘sophisticated terrorist network operating with international support’. Al-Singace has long campaigned for an end to torture and for political reform in Bahrain, writing on these and other subjects in his blog, Al-Faseela. Al-Khawaja, former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and co-founder of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, is an outspoken critic of Bahrain’s ruling royal family, who are Sunnis. Before his imprisonment in 2011, he told the BBC that he had deliberately stayed away from Pearl Roundabout. ‘I don’t want to give the authorities any reason to arrest me,’ he said. Despite this, he was detained in a late-night raid on his daughter’s house. Following his sentencing, al-Khawaja staged a 110-day hunger strike in protest.
At the time of writing, PEN and other human rights groups are alarmed that both men remain behind bars. Conditions in Bahrain’s overcrowded prisons dramatically increase the risk of the virus spreading. The lack of adequate sanitation led to a scabies outbreak in Jau Prison at the end of last year and in Dry Dock Detention Centre earlier this year. In 2016, the government-launched Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission reported that Jau Prison suffered from ‘bad hygiene’, ‘insect infestation’ and ‘broken toilets’. Al-Singace, who is now fifty-seven, is particularly vulnerable. He has post-polio syndrome and uses a wheelchair. Prison authorities have refused to transport him to medical appointments because he will not wear shackles. Given the poor conditions in prisons and the persistent failure of the authorities to provide an adequate level of care to those in their custody, few believe that they could effectively control the spread of coronavirus if there is an outbreak there.
PEN believes that the danger posed by the pandemic necessitates the reduction of the current prison population and the release of pre-trial detainees in Bahrain. It has joined other organisations in an open appeal calling for those prisoners who are especially vulnerable, are elderly or have medical conditions to be released as a matter of urgency to prevent the spread of coronavirus. At the very least, they argue, the authorities should ensure that anyone who remains in custody has access to disease prevention and treatment services, and introduce physical distancing measures among prisoners. Prison authorities should also screen all guards to prevent the introduction of coronavirus into prisons, provide appropriate information on hygiene and supplies, and ensure that all areas accessible to prisoners, prison staff and visitors are disinfected regularly. They should develop plans for housing people exposed to or infected with the virus in quarantine or isolation and provide them with any necessary medical care.
Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Bahraini authorities to release Dr Abduljalil al-Singace, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and all other human rights defenders, opposition activists and journalists as a matter of urgency given the dangers associated with the spread of coronavirus in prisons, and demanding that those imprisoned following unfair trials should be released pending fair retrials.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
King of Bahrain
Office of HM the King
PO Box 555
Kingdom of Bahrain
Fax: 00 973 176 64 587
Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa
Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs
Fax: 00 973 175 31 284
HE Ambassador Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammad al-Khalifa
Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain
30 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8QB
Fax: 020 7201 9183