Bahrain prison inmates are taking part in a hunger strike over conditions there, activists and authorities said, in the latest sign of simmering unrest in the island kingdom a decade after the Arab Spring uprising.
The strike targets the Jaw Rehabilitation and Reform Centre, a facility holding many of the prisoners identified by human rights activists as dissidents who oppose the rule of the Al Khalifa family. The country’s Sunni rulers have long faced complaints from the island’s Shia majority of discrimination.
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In a statement published by the outlawed Al-Wefaq opposition group, the prisoners said they started the hunger strike over what it described as prison officials blocking inmates from worshipping and 23-hour lockdowns daily. It also alleged prison officials put inmates in isolation arbitrarily, interfered with family visits and provided inadequate healthcare to those imprisoned. Inmates are also barred from accessing education.
“Our demands are not trifles, but very necessary and required for human life, even at the lowest levels known to human history,” the prisoners’ statement read.
The hunger strike embodies the prisoners’ insistence on fundamental rights and dignity, and is a reminder that rights cannot be neglected, the statement said.
Two prison blocks at Jaw started their hunger strike on Monday, while three others started on Tuesday, said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, an exiled activist in Britain with the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. Alwadaei described those in the blocks taking part in the hunger strike as “political prisoners”.
Hundreds of political prisoners are on hunger strike in Jau Prison in #Bahrain
On the second day, more prisoners have joined the strike to call for:
1) An end to isolation for prisoners held in Building 3 and others placed in buildings with criminal prisoners in violation of… pic.twitter.com/9fWshb4Bbx
— Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei (@SAlwadaei) August 8, 2023
The prisoners put the number of those taking part in the strike in the hundreds, though that could not be independently confirmed by Al Jazeera. Several issued audio messages, later shared by activists, confirming the hunger strike.
Responding to questions from The Associated Press news agency, Bahrain’s General Directorate of Reform and Rehabilitation said some inmates at Jaw had “returned their meals” on Tuesday. It did not provide a number of those taking part in the hunger strike, but insisted prisons allowed Shia Muslims to commemorate Ashura and “enjoy their full rights” and healthcare.
Officials “will continue to monitor the conditions of the inmates who have returned their meals to ensure the quality of the services provided and to address their concerns within the framework of adherence to the law and respect for human rights,” the government statement said.
Videos posted on social media showed a solidarity protest in Sanabis, a village located on the outskirts of the capital, Manama. Demonstrators held up posters with slogans such as “Save Bahrain’s prisoners” and “Our sons are in danger”.
— Maryam Alkhawaja (@MARYAMALKHAWAJA) August 7, 2023
Jaw is towards the southern end of Bahrain, an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Gulf that is about the size of New York City with a population of 1.5 million. Concerns over medical care at the prison have been raised before by activists.
The US Department of State’s recent human rights report on Bahrain noted prisoners’ families reported a tuberculosis outbreak at the prison in June 2022. The government denied the report, but inaugurated a 24-hour clinic at the prison months afterwards, the State Department said.
Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet, is in the midst of a decade-long crackdown on all dissent after the 2011 Arab Spring protests, which saw the island’s Shia majority and others demanding more political freedom.
Since Bahrain put down the protests with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it has imprisoned Shia activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship and closed its leading independent newspaper.
In 2020, Bahrain officially normalised relations with Israel, and last November, the country hosted Pope Francis for his second visit to a Gulf Arab state.