While a pandemic lockdown is nothing like being in jail, the time we spend in isolation, with relatively quick and easy access to basic personal protective equipment, should help us better appreciate the horrific living conditions thousands of political prisoners are facing right now.
In Jau, the largest and most overcrowded prison in the tiny Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, an average cell measures 3 by 3.4 metres and houses up to 12 prisoners. Many are political opposition leaders and protesters from Bahrain’s stifled opposition movement, including activists from the country’s Arab Spring–inspired movement in 2011.
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Adult and juvenile inmates alike lie in dirty cells and corridors littered with waste. Physical and psychological torture are common. Despite an official capacity of 1,201, Jau prison is estimated to be holding more than double that number of inmates.
“There has never been a distribution of face masks, hand sanitizer, testing, regularized testing since we started making inquiries in September 2020,” Devin Kenney, a Gulf researcher with Amnesty International, said at a meeting held by human rights organizations earlier this month. “Social distancing is effectively impossible.”
So when authorities announced that three cases of COVID-19 had been discovered last month in Jau — something relatives of political prisoners had long suspected — daily protests filled streets and villages in ways that hadn’t been seen since the Arab Spring. Local human rights organizations tracking prisoners’ test results (available through the health ministry’s website) posted on social media that the number of infections likely exceeded 150.
Led largely by mothers, daughters and sisters of the detainees, the demonstrators called for their loved ones to be released immediately. “Today my brother Ahmad Ali completes six years in prison,” a protester and sister of inmate Ahmad Ali Yousif told me last week. “His wife was five months pregnant with twin girls when he was detained … and my brother loves children so much you would not believe it. It really breaks my heart.”
Amid the unrest, tensions within Jau prison also reached a boiling point last weekend. More than 50 riot police entered one of the prison buildings and attacked at least 35 prisoners for protesting poor health and sanitation conditions.
Human rights activists called it a bloodbath and “revenge attacks” for the street demonstrations. According to one eyewitness account told to Bahrain Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a Bahraini activist living in exile, inmates had formed human chains in a sit-in that security forces tried to break up.
“They surrounded [one prisoner] and we could see the batons rise and fall on his body until they took him out,” the inmate could be heard saying in a recorded phone conversation shared by Alwadaei. “Sayed Alawi Muhammad Jawad from [the town of] Barbar was beaten very violently … and the corridors were full of blood, the chairs and panels were broken. Younger men [prisoners] were using them to resist the forces.”
The eyewitness told Alwadaei that prison guards then made an announcement from the building’s loudspeakers. “‘Your sit-in is illegal.’ The prisoners answered them. They said, ‘We demand our rights, give us our rights, and we will go back to the cells.’”
Several prisoners were reportedly thrown face first onto the ground repeatedly. One detainee was knocked unconscious after suffering a deep head wound, which reportedly bled profusely. Another was seen being carried away by police. No one knows where these individuals are currently located.
Shortly after the attack, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior released a predictably evasive statement denying that any excessive force had been used against detainees, suggesting instead they were aggressors: “Security and legal procedures were taken today against [Jau prisoners], in which they were involved in chaos and violence against police personnel.”
The following day, Bahrain’s National Institution for Human Rights, a quasi-governmental oversight body, denied claims that prisoners had been beaten and moved to an unknown site.
It is precisely bogus findings (from pseudo rights organizations) like these — along with statements that political prisoners are forced to sign upon release that ban them from ever speaking publicly against the government — that contribute to Bahrain’s long-standing culture of impunity. Gulf autocrats are masters at creating false narratives, no doubt due to their well-funded public relations apparatus based largely in Washington and London.
Few recall Bahrain’s Arab Spring–inspired movement in 2011 for this reason. Just as in Egypt and Tunisia, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the capital public square to protest their government’s tight grip on power, arrest of political critics and discrimination against the country’s majority Shia population. Unlike movements in Egypt and Tunisia, however, public dissent was quickly and brutally suppressed. Nearly 2,000 Saudi-led troops rolled into the island. Hundreds of people were killed, and thousands more imprisoned. Others simply went missing.
It’s a time Khaled Sahwan — who was arrested and tortured by Bahraini authorities 10 years ago for participating in the 2011 protests — will never fully heal from. Now living in Windsor, Ontario, Sahwan works at a call centre and studies human resources management.
“I remember at the beginning of my arrest they put me in a very small narrow cell in a solitary prison for about three weeks. It was very difficult. I was handcuffed, and between the physical and psychological torture, the insulting and beating us with different ways. … I still have sores on my body,” he told me. Hearing about the recent attacks at Jau left him reeling with anguish, especially because several of his friends are still incarcerated.
What’s also deplorable is how Ottawa and Washington continue to prop up Gulf monarchs while knowing all too well how nefarious these regimes are. A warm meeting between the U.S. secretary of homeland security and Bahrain’s minister of interior last week reflected just how much U.S. foreign policy is again failing on a human rights front.
“Secretary Mayorkas and Minister Al-Khalifa acknowledged the close cooperation and partnership that exists between Bahrain and the United States, which both countries look forward to strengthening,” read a statement released by U.S. Homeland Security. No reference was made to the ongoing protests or COVID-19 outbreak at Jau.
It’s clear that in the eyes of Ottawa and Washington, the financial and geopolitical benefits of a U.S.-Gulf alliance outweigh the value of human life. President Joe Biden indicated as much in February when he chose not to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in the assassination of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. A State Department spokesperson put it plainly: Biden wants to “recalibrate” the relationship, not “rupture” it.
Futile words that offer no hope for those facing an entirely different lockdown all together right now.