Bahrain has released over a thousand prisoners, but political activists remain locked up.
Across the globe, governments are scrambling to devise new policies, laws and regulations to protect their citizens from the potentially deadly spread of Covid-19. From Austria to Australia, nations have secured their borders and curtailed the movements of residents to ensure that social distancing – a key preventative measure against the incipient spread of the virus – can occur.
In many cases, governments have also implemented a raft of other measures to further reduce the impact on vulnerable populations within their borders. One such undertaking by some states, has been the release of certain prisoners from overcrowded and often unhygienic jail cells.
In mid-March, in response to rising global concerns around Covid-19, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain took the commendable step of releasing 1,486 prisoners from prisons across the country.
With 901 receiving pardons and a further 585 being given non-custodial sentences, King Hamad should be applauded for such decisive action to protect this vulnerable group of citizens.
Without a doubt, this action, especially at such a crucial juncture in the global spread of the virus, saved the lives of a number of detainees and prison officials.
Whilst this move by the Bahraini authorities is certainly positive, and was even taken well-before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called upon governments to take such action, the world must be cautious in singing their praises too loudly. This is for the simple fact that the prisoners that were released were carefully selected, and opposition leaders, human rights activists or other government critics were notably absent from this group.
Despite the fact that many prisoners of conscience are in incredibly precarious situations and are vulnerable due to their frail-age or underlying medical conditions, they have yet to be considered for release. This deliberate act to further punish individuals simply because they have been critical of the Bahraini regime, highlights a major deviation from a range of internationally accepted human rights norms.
Jau Prison, located south of Bahrain’s capital city of Manama, is one of the region’s most infamous correctional institutions.
With a reputation for being overcrowded, a place where inmates are routinely subject to mental and physical abuse, and a literal breeding ground for disease, it is no wonder that there has been widespread international condemnation over recent years.
Reports from civil society organisations such as Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Gulf Institute for Democracy & Human Rights (GIDHR) amongst others, have described conditions inside Jau Prison as ‘brutal and inhumane’.
Fatima Yazbek, Head of Reports and Studies at GIDHR, labels Jau and Isa Town prisons as “places of deprivation, humiliation, negligence and hopelessness”. Similar claims drawing attention to these alarming conditions have also been made by various United Nations bodies such as the Committee against Torture.
It is important to note that a significant number of Bahrain’s prisoners of conscience, are either elderly or in poor health. By being left to languish in prison, these men and women are forced to participate in an involuntary game of Russian Roulette with Covid-19.
With social distancing impossible, and medical negligence considered par for the course, it is only a matter of time before the world witnesses a completely preventable loss of life inside Bahrain’s prisons.
One such prisoner who is at dire risk should Covid-19 enter the prison system is academic and opposition activist, Dr Abdel-Jalil al Singace. Sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for “plotting to overthrow the government,” Dr Abdel’s case is a reflection of just how far the government is willing to go to silence dissent.
Routinely denied medical treatment since mid-2019 for conditions including post-polio syndrome, sickle cell disease, and other chronic illnesses, Dr. Abdel-Jalil is currently confined to a wheelchair and unable to move freely.
The decision to keep him incarcerated, disregarding his need for urgent medical attention, can be considered nothing short of a travesty of justice, and further punitive action against an innocent man.
Sadly, Dr Abdel is not alone in his confinement for voicing his peaceful opinions. Other human rights activists such as Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab are also currently detained in Jau Prison’s run-down confines.
Sentenced to life and five years imprisonment respectively, these two men are subject to the same overcrowded and unhygienic confines as Dr Abdel. Like him, they too are forced to endure the challenging confines, at high risk of contracting the deadly virus.
As countries around the world are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is incumbent upon governments to also consider the welfare and lives of society’s most vulnerable. This includes refugees, migrants, undocumented persons, and individuals in detention facilities or jails. With the number of global cases continuing to rise, nations such as Bahrain should not be picking and choosing who has access to safety.
Rather, they should reflect upon their international, domestic, and moral obligations, and release all political prisoners and those at risk of the disease.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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