A total of 804 political prisoners incarcerated in Jaw prison in south-eastern Bahrain have been on a hunger strike since August 7, 2023, protesting against poor conditions in the prison. The movement has inspired calls for the prisoners’ release and for King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who has ruled as king since 2002, to step down. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to two prisoners’ relatives.
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It’s the largest and longest hunger strike in the kingdom’s history. Since August 7, 804 political prisoners have declared a hunger strike to protest poor detention conditions. Nearly one-third of all inmates in Jaw prison, in south-eastern Bahrain, are participating in the strike. Their principal demands include more time out of their cells – currently limited to one hour per day – as well as access to proper medical care and the right to hold prayers in dedicated spaces.
According to Sayed al-Wadaei of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), a UK-based NGO that closely monitors the situation of striking prisoners, the majority of strikers “are imprisoned mainly for their political views or for carrying out activities of a political nature, often for daring to take part in the popular uprising in 2011”.
Bahrain was the site of massive protests in 2011, aimed initially at extending political freedoms to the Shia population (70 percent of the population), before turning into an uprising calling for an end to the Sunni monarchy. With military assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the Bahraini authorities violently suppressed the protests.
‘We learned that his most recent medical visit to hospital was cancelled due to the lack of an ambulance’
Maryam al-Khawaja is the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Bahraini opposition figure known for his support of the 2011 uprising. He went on strike on August 9, 2023, although authorities deny this.
My father was already on strike when he learned that his fellow prisoners had also gone on strike. He decided to join them. According to his doctor, he suffers from cardiac arrhythmia, a diagnosis confirmed by the prison doctor. Since he went on strike, he has been rushed to hospital twice, on August 11 and 28, 2023. He is still going without food unless he is on the brink of fainting.
At least 30 prisoners are taken to hospital every day, often to receive plasma, according to the Prisoners’ Affairs Authority, which stays in close contact with inmates.
Authorities have begun isolating striking prisoners and have refused to provide medical services to several of them until they end the strike, according to the Bahraini opposition party Al-Wefaq, which has been banned by the kingdom.
“No detainees taking part in the protest have required critical care,” Bahrain’s General Directorate of Reform and Rehabilitation told AFP.
Mouhammad Hassan Abdullah, 63, is married with three children. He has been imprisoned in Jaw since 2018, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. We spoke to his brother Abdulhadi:
We do not have any photos of him since mobile phones are strictly forbidden. He is starving himself. Since the start of his strike [on August 7 2023], he has been taken to hospital twice. We learned that his most recent medical visit to hospital was cancelled due to the lack of an ambulance.
We have not been able to visit my brother since the Covid-19 crisis began in February 2020. During these visits, he was only allowed to see us for 30 minutes. Very often we were delayed, humiliated, left to wait under the sun or simply forbidden to see him.
No member of the family has been able to shake my brother’s hand since he has been in prison because there is a glass divider that prevents us from coming into contact with prisoners. Communication takes place through headphones that emit scrambled sounds that make it impossible to understand what the prisoner is saying.
Some prisoners claim that guards have responded to the protests with violence.
On August 28, 2023, the Ministry of the Interior stated that it was going to “increase the duration of visits” and that it was seeking to increase the time outside the cells, a measure that has so far not put an end to the hunger strike.
When contacted, the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior declined to answer our questions.
‘Down with Hamad’
Hundreds of Bahrainis even chanted “Down with Hamad” during a protest in Jidhafs on Friday, August 18, 2023. It’s a rare show of dissent in the Gulf kingdom, where Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has been king since 2002.
Nearly 15,000 people arrested since 2011
On August 12, 2023, when the hunger strike was already on its fifth day, the European Union’s special representative for the Gulf region, Luigi Di Maio, visited Bahrain and held talks with members of the government.
“The human rights situation in one of the Gulf states is not something on which the EU Special Representative for the Gulf States will comment. It does not fall within his mandate”, said Peter Santo, spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy in the European Union’s diplomatic service.
This isn’t the first time that inmates at Jaw Prison have protested. Riots broke out in 2015 to protest prison overcrowding and poor living conditions, but were brutally quashed by authorities.
Nearly 15,000 people have been arrested in Bahrain for their political activities and opinions since 2011, according to a report by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights published in September 2022. In 2021, there were an estimated 1,400 political prisoners serving sentences in Bahrain.