Human Rights Defender’s Hunger Strike Protests Torture in Infamous Bahraini Prison

People rally in Bahrain on May 8th calling on authorities to stop the human rights abuses taking place in Jaw prison. Photo from Al Wefaq National Islamic Society's Official Twitter Account @AlWefaqEN

People rally in Bahrain on May 8 calling on authorities to stop the human rights abuses taking place in Jaw prison. Photo from Al Wefaq National Islamic Society's Official Twitter Account @AlWefaqEN

Prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja went public with his hunger strike, which has now been going on for 23 days since he demanded authorities to investigate allegations of torture in Jaw prison with no progress.

In an open letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, Al-Khawaja said:

Building 10 in Jaw prison has become known as the torture building, and I have personally been hearing the screams of the victims.

He added that the type of torture prisoners have been subjected to in the last few months is the worst since 2011, when a so-called Arab Spring-inspired uprising started. Attached to his letter were detailed accounts of torture and mistreatment incidents on different occasions, including the crackdown on riots that happened inside Jaw prison.

The main Jaw prison incident started on March 10, when an inmate's family was visiting the center and were told their son was barred from visits. The inmate's sister had an exchange with the police officer who reportedly hit her in return. Outraged inmates who witnessed the incident at the visitation lobby were taken back to the main prison buildings and riots erupted.

In a post written by Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab before he got arrested for tweeting, he revealed what had happened that day after the inmates were taken back to the main building:

They marched the inmates out into the courtyards, where every one of them was beaten and humiliated by the police. The forces took shifts terrorizing the inmates, passing the baton between Bahraini police and Jordanian units. The inmates were shot at with shotguns and sound grenades, aimed at their bodies. Inmates were forced to address the officers as ‘master’, beaten if they asked to be taken to the toilet (where they were given 30 seconds to relieve themselves), beaten during meals, and forced to insult their families or face more beatings.

Rajab is the president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and a leading voice for the Bahraini uprising. He has been arrested and detained several times since 2011 for different charges, including “inciting gatherings and calling for unauthorized marches through social networking sites”, “participation in an illegal assembly”, and “insulting public institutions.” Most of his work has a heavy weight on social media, the main platform for his advocacy for human rights. Most of his latest arrests are in connection with statements and accusations directed at the government he had published on Twitter. His latest arrest on April 2 was related to tweets about abuses at Bahrain’s Jaw prison and the crisis in Yemen. On May 11, authorities prolonged Rajab's detention for two more weeks after having already extended it several times before.

Also in his letter, Al-Khawaja says prisoners were left out in the prison's yard for three days before they were forced to cramp up in two plastic tents. One tent had 310 prisoners, and the other had 318.

Authorities reported a different side of the story, claiming that police controlled acts of “violence and vandalism.” They cite the prison center's director explaining one of the inmate's family asked to let a relative in with them for visitation, but their request was denied because the visitor did not carry an ID.

The center's director confirmed that some family members in connection with the incident were arrested, and “police acted to restore control” after a male nurse was taken hostage by prison inmates.

On the Ministry of Interior's official Twitter account, they announced that the whole incident had been recorded:

Yet no video has been available for the public.

Some protested the Formula 1 event that was held at Bahrain International Circuit from April 17 to 19, saying it prevented attention from real issues and violations taking place behind the scenes:

On May 8, the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a royal decree pardoning a number of inmates for “humanitarian reasons”. Anti-government activists and protesters believe it is a move to cover up to the real violations and horrific treatment of prisoners.

The regime in Bahrain got stuck with 4,000 inmates in addition to outrage on the street, so it decided to release some prisoners to have more space for new arrests, and that's why it issued a so-called “royal decree”

According to the announcement, the decree includes female inmates, inmates who have special medical conditions, inmates under the age of 18, those sentenced to less than three years, as well as inmates who co-operated and showed “commitment and responsiveness to social and drug rehabilitation programs.”

Dozens of people tweeted to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez the same messages multiple times, hoping to gain his attention:

Al-Khawaja letter listed a number of prisoners’ cases in his letter, and revealed torture methods used by officers and guards including sleep deprivation, beating, denying medical treatment and banning them from accessing the toilet.

Abuses and violations still continue today:

Torture in Jaw prison is ongoing and we have to mobilize and let the world know what prisoners go through. Deliver the message to the outside.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent investigation into torture allegations. HRW Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Joe Stork said: “The authorities need to allow independent medical access to the prison at once and ensure their access to building 10, where the most serious abuses are alleged to have taken place.”

Families of those who were involved in the March 10 riot say some inmates are still not allowed to receive visitors, or make phone calls to their relatives.

Jaw prison is built for a capacity of 448 inmates, but currently detains about 1,000 inmates.

Al-Khawaja is the former president and co-founder of BCHR, and an icon of the Bahraini uprising. He was arrested on April 9, 2011, and is currently serving a life sentence in Jaw prison. His active role in the field of human rights made him a subject for government harassment. His daughters Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja are also active in the human rights field.

This is not Al-Khawaja's first hunger strike. In fact, he went on several hunger strikes since the beginning of the uprising in protest of government's actions and abuses. Most notable is the “Freedom or Death” hunger strike that lasted for about three months.

Al-Khawaja continues to be on hunger strike waiting for authorities to take his demands into account and follow up with serious measures to stop the violations against prisoners.

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