Bahrain prisoners suspend weeks-long mass hunger strike

The suspension of the strike comes before the crown prince’s visit to the United States, and as Bahrain vows to improve conditions.

Bahrain prison cell
The strike will pause until September 30 as some prisoners suffered health problems, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) said [File: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters]

Prisoners in Bahrain have suspended a mass hunger strike after 36 days following a pledge from the Gulf monarchy’s authorities to improve conditions, activists have said.

At least 800 detainees joined the strike, which was the biggest in Bahrain’s history, according to the activists who said some prisoners’ health was deteriorating.

Bahraini authorities have said 121 prisoners took part.

Dozens of people have held scattered protests almost daily in support of the prisoners, in echoes of the large-scale demonstrations that rocked the tiny island state in 2011.

“It is a relief that the prolonged hunger strike has been suspended following serious concerns about the deteriorating health of many of the political prisoners,” Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Authorities must honour their pledge and act quickly to improve prison conditions, rather than forcing prisoners to resume their strike and risk their lives to secure their basic human rights.”

Prisoners at the Jau prison, which holds dissidents detained when authorities cracked down on the 2011 protests, have been subjected to 23-hour cell confinement and restrictions on prayer, according to BIRD and the banned opposition.

‘Retaliate against us’

One of the prisoners is Sayed Sajjad, who has been detained since September 2013, and is one of the inmates negotiating with the prison authorities.

He told Human Rights First that prison authorities “treat us with a mentality of revenge”.

“I have been on hunger strike for 33 days and some hours. I feel weak and sometimes I can’t even see clearly,” he said.

“Our strength comes from knowing that if we stop now, the prison administration will retaliate against us in a worse way than the current situation. They will exact revenge on us severely.”

The strike will pause until September 30 as some prisoners suffered health problems and to see if promised changes by Bahrain’s government prison will materialise, BIRD said.

The promised changes include limiting isolation, expanding visitor rights, extending the hours of daylight inmates have and improving health care at the prison. If the changes are not implemented, the strike will resume, the group added.

The suspension of the hunger strike, which had drawn concern from the US government, comes at a time of international scrutiny with a team from the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva due to visit this week.

According to BIRD, the country’s crown prince is set to meet senior officials in Washington in the coming days.

The strike was suspended late on Monday, after a meeting between jail officials, the interior ministry and a group of prisoners, the group said.

Maryam al-Khawaja, the daughter of the long-detained human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, plans to travel to Bahrain in the coming days with activists including the head of Amnesty International. She plans to advocate for her father’s release, though she herself faces prison time in Bahrain, the home of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies