North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

COVID-19 is spreading among Bahrain’s prisoners of conscience

As the main supporter of Bahrain’s repressive regime, the UK should join the protests against human rights abuses in the country’s prisons

Saeed Al-Shehabi
26 April 2021, 10.47am
Bahrain has long been ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world
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Flickr / Al Jazeera English. Some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Recent news of a serious COVID-19 outbreak inside Bahrain’s notorious Jau Prison is causing international concern. The country’s largest, long-stay men’s prison, and massively overcrowded, Jau is where most of the leaders of the political opposition and civil rights movements are incarcerated.

Sources report that infection rates have risen dramatically, with recent estimates saying that 100 prisoners have tested positive for the virus.

This development has hit the families of detainees especially hard. Their appeals to the international community to exert pressure on the regime to free prisoners of conscience were heeded by some human rights bodies who urged the Bahraini state to release all prisoners of conscience.

Human rights activists have been working relentlessly to highlight the plight of inmates who languish in cells lacking basic sanitation and are denied proper medical care.

On 6 April, Abbas Malallah, a prisoner of conscience who was arrested in 2011 for participating in pro-democracy protests, died in Jau Prison at the age of 50. According to prison officials, the cause of death was a heart attack, but other causes cannot be discounted, including “medical negligence”.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “The Bahraini government and prison authorities have a clear duty to guarantee the right to health of those in detention and protect them from the risk of infection.” Maalouf urged the authorities to “ensure all prisoners are provided with face masks and adequate hygiene supplies, that they can keep physical distance and are tested regularly”.

The coronavirus outbreak in Jau led to street protests across the country, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners. These protests come shortly after the tenth anniversary of Bahrain’s short-lived revolution, which erupted on 10 February 2011 and demanded political change in a country ruled by a hereditary dictatorship.

Inmates in Jau Prison also staged a sit-in to protest against their inhumane detention conditions, including the spread of COVID-19, but the action was immediately and brutally repressed by riot police.

The UK’s colonial legacy

Apart from a brief flirtation with democracy in the early 1970s in the immediate aftermath of the British withdrawal from the Gulf, Bahrain has long been ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Senior members of the al-Khalifa tribe govern Bahrain with an iron-fist policy, supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose forces helped crush the 2011 uprising.

Instead of supporting democracy and human rights, the UK has clung to its long-standing ties with, and support of, Bahrain’s authoritarian rulers

The struggle for freedom in Bahrain has continued unabated for almost a century. As the latest chapter in this saga unfolds, the powers lending unequivocal support to the al-Khalifa regime are under the spotlight because of their morally untenable policies towards the country.

The UK’s relationship with Bahrain is a classic example of a former colonial power maintaining a strong influence over an ex-colony. Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, from the London School of Economics, explained to the UK’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee in 2012 that the UK has long been regarded as the main protector of the al-Khalifa regime.

British security experts are accused of helping the regime in Bahrain, even after the UK’s withdrawal in 1971. Ian Henderson, the country’s former general director of security and head of the state investigation department, played an important role in maintaining this status quo for decades.

Dubbed the “Butcher of Bahrain”, his men allegedly tortured Bahraini prisoners, through sexual assault and other methods of abuse. His legacy remains a source of fear and anger among those seeking democratic transformation in the country.

Instead of supporting democracy and human rights, the UK has clung to its long-standing ties with, and support of, Bahrain’s authoritarian rulers and exhibited a readiness to compromise moral and human principles for the sake of political expediency.

Concern for its own political and economic gains, including arms sales, have characterised the UK's dealings with Bahrain in the post-colonial era. The current situation in the country is a painful reminder to anyone seeking to achieve a peaceful future for humanity, based on people’s participation and right to self-determination.

The past two decades in the small kingdom have demonstrated the outcome of a policy of appeasing dictators. One crude outcome is extremism, terrorism and repression. But in a post-Brexit era, the UK’s future interests will be better served by aligning its foreign policy with the promotion of human rights and democratisation.

Bahrainis will persevere in their quest for a more equitable and morally sound political system. They will continue their efforts to free their children from torture dungeons. They will not forget that many people have spent a decade behind bars for trying to bring about a modern democratic state, based on human rights and the rule of law. Antiquated values of clan supremacy is tantamount to racism and must be shunned by everyone, especially countries that call themselves part of “the free world”.

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