Inmates allege brutal crackdown in response to Covid protest at Bahrain prison


Inmates at Bahrain’s Jau prison claim authorities regularly delay or deny vital medical care to prisoners – especially prisoners of conscience, as Covid-19 spread throughout the crowded jail.

Fearing for their lives after the death of a prisoner, inmates started to protest in early April. They occupied the corridors and their sit-in at building 13 that lasted 10 days, and spread to other blocks in Jau, an infamous prison complex in the south of the kingdom.

The concern has grown since late March when Covid-19 began to tear through the prison system. Prisoners and rights groups claim authorities failed to prevent the outbreak and have denied some inmates their choice of vaccine.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) provided data, seen by the Guardian, seeming to show that at least 138 inmates in Jau have been infected with Covid since March 22.

In addition, Bird estimates that the total number of Covid cases in both Jau and the Dry Dock Detention Centre – which houses prisoners in pre-trial detention or awaiting court hearings – has far exceeded 200 cases since March.

The inmates’ protest inside Jau spread to three buildings, all housing political prisoners, before a fierce crackdown on April 17.

Prison authorities, backed by anti-riot police, charged into building 13, throwing stun grenades and allegedly beating inmates with batons to force them back inside their overcrowded cells.

CCTV footage shows inmates in one cell throwing objects out the door in an attempt to keep out the security forces. The footage provided to the Guardian does not show security forces beating inmates, yet the inmates, their family members, and rights groups claimed that forces had entered cells to beat inmates with their batons.

One prisoner, Saeed Abdulemam, said he was beaten so badly on his head that he still had blurred vision two and a half weeks later. Other inmates told their families they were beaten with metal rods and shoes.

“Everyone was beaten badly,” Hassan Ali Sheikh told his mother on the phone. Other inmates later told Bird that security forces had dragged the bodies of those they had beaten unconscious through the corridor, leaving a trail of blood.

Asked about Covid in the prison system, a government spokesperson said Bahrain was taking steps to “reduce active cases in the prison population while providing rapid and adequate treatment”.

The authorities’ only public admission that there are cases within the prison system was in late March, when they said three cases had been discovered and isolated.

On May 24 an early day motion was tabled in the UK House of Commons, stating that about 60 inmates were taken to solitary confinement cells where they were held for 19 days without access to daylight, phone calls or their lawyers.

The UN high commissioner for human rights said: “We are disturbed by the use of unnecessary and disproportionate force by police special forces to dismantle a peaceful sit-in.”

In early May, diplomats including the British ambassador and the American chargé d’affairs visited Jau. The British ambassador Roddy Drummond tweeted: “We were shown a well-run facility.”

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, who heads Bird, said he was “shocked to my core”, by the testimonies of prisoners about the crackdown on April 17. He said the authorities’ response to the sit-in “amounts to torture”.

When contacted for comment, the Bahraini authorities said the Jau sit-in was a “violent” demonstration and said “prison staff took proportionate measures in line with prison policy, necessary to protect staff, other inmates and the delivery of essential health services”.

They said those detained after the crackdown had been moved to newer facilities at Jau. They could not explain why detainees did not contact their families during this period.

The Bahraini authorities also provided the edited CCTV footage which they said backed up their claims. (Source: The Guardian)