Bahrain Faces New Crisis As Prison Protests Escalate

By Brian Dooley

Bahrain is lurching into another crisis as hundreds of prisoners protest about the lack of adequate medical care. Among those denied the care they need are prominent rights activists Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, Abduljalil Al Singace, and Hassan Mushaima, who have been jailed since their peaceful protests in 2011.

Bahrain’s main prison, Jau, currently holds an estimated 1300 prisoners, around half of whom are on a hunger strike.

The current crisis could have been easily avoided – if Bahrain’s government had shown an iota of wisdom, it would have released those unjustly jailed years ago, and given all those who need medical treatment adequate care.

It’s another mishandling of a situation that now threatens to spiral dangerously out of control. In March 2015 there was a prison riot at Jau. We predicted that the poor conditions, overcrowding, and poor medical care would erupt into large-scale disturbances, and they did.

I spoke to several former inmates of Jau last night. One recently released prisoner said “This frustration in the prison has to go somewhere, it’s been building for so long. The situation is getting worse every day with more and more prisoners joining the protest. Some have already collapsed.”

Some prisoners began refusing food on August 7, and many more have since joined the protest. International attention is starting to turn towards Jau. Yesterday I joined others in an overnight protest outside the Bahrain embassy in London, praying for those prisoners in urgent need of medical care.

Some sectors of the United States government realize that things are developing dangerously, threatening Bahrain’s fragile stability. Washington has for many years supported Bahrain’s ruling family, which governs the country by violent force. Its elections are a sham, and for many years the U.S. has kept a nervous eye on the tiny kingdom because of its sensitive location, and its hosting of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Some members of Congress, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, have this week publicly addressed the mounting crisis. Even the State Department, normally reluctant to criticize its dictator allies in the region, responded to a reporter’s question with some degree of concern.

The U.S. embassy in Manama, true to disappointing form, has yet to say anything public about what’s happening on its doorstep, and is busy tweeting pictures of Bahrain’s king with U.S. officials.

But if any of the hundreds of prisoners on the hunger protest die, the consequences of Bahrain’s failure to resolve the crisis could be catastrophic, with unrest spilling onto the streets.

The authorities in Bahrain need to act fast to prevent a similar outcome to 2015, when they responded to prison unrest by torturing and ill-treating dozens of detainees.  Better to make the smart move now, grant the prisoners’ basic demands including proper health care, and avert another disaster.

Among those in most acute danger are the leading rights activists. Human Rights First joined other NGOs this week urging the State Department to use its considerable influence with Bahrain to press for a speedy and humane resolution to the crisis.

The Biden administration, at a senior level, should publicly call for the release of Bahrain’s jailed human rights defenders and ensure they and the other prisoners have access to the medical treatment they need before it’s too late.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on August 18, 2023


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