Bahrain's dirty secret: How the tiny island nation doubled its prison population since 2011

Published September 28th, 2014 - 07:47 GMT

The arrest and subsequent release of renowned Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja this month by Bahraini authorities has forced the spotlight back to one of the most pressing issues for Bahraini activists and protesters in the tiny island nation: the continued detainment of over 2,000 Bahrains who dared to challenge the Khalifa monarchy when the uprising erupted in February 2011. Today, Bahrain has the distinction of being the country with the second highest prison population rate per 100,000 amongst Arab states in the West Asian and North African region.

Maryam Khawaja, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, was arrested on August 30 at Bahrain's international airport when she tried to visit her father, Abulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on a hunger strike to highlight his continued detainment since April 2011, as well as the plight of other prisoners. The daughter, Maryam, was charged with allegedly “attacking a policewoman” and was supposed to be released a week later, but her release was delayed until mid-September.

The Khawaja family are well-known and respected within the international activist circle to the degree that when Maryam was arrested, Ravina Shamdasani, the spokeswoman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for her immediate release.

“Ongoing violations of the rights to freedom of expression, peace assembly and association, and the targeting of human rights activists in Bahrain remain of serious concern,” Shamdasani had said in a press statement a few days after Maryam's arrest.

"We urge the government to take immediate steps to release Ms. Khawaja and all human rights defenders and individuals detained for the peaceful exercise of their rights, and to ensure that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their important work in an effective manner without fear of harassment or prosecution," the spokeswoman added.

Due to the fact that the Bahraini regime does not publicly share the total number of prisoners it has nor does it provide an accurate breakdown of the detainees’ crimes, most information regarding Bahrain’s prisons usually come from non-governmental sources. According to Bahraini activists, there are presently at least 2,000-3,000 “political prisoners” who were arrested when the recent Bahraini uprising erupted in 2011. They are held among 20 prisons dispersed throughout the archipelago nation, all but two are administered by the Ministry of Interior. Out of the 20, there are four main prisons, one of which is solely for women. They are: al-Qurain Prison, Dry Dock Detention Center, Jaw Prison, and the Isa Town Detention Center for women.

While the number of prisoners may seem inconsequential compared to other countries, for Bahrain – with a small population of 1.2 million, 570,000 of which are Bahraini – it is quite significant.“The US is the country that has the highest prison population in the world,” an official for the UK-based International Center of Prison Studies (ICPS), said to Al-Akhbar English, “But according to our figures, the prison population rate in Bahrain is 175 per a national population of 100,000. That is higher than the average for [Arab states] in the Middle East.”

In comparison to other Arab states in the West Asian region, Saudi Arabia and Algeria are second highest to Bahrain with a prison population rate estimated at 162, while Iraq follows at 139, and then Lebanon at 108. Bahrain is only surpassed by the United Arab Emirates, which has a prison population rate of 238. If the category is extended to include non-Arab states, Bahrain is surpassed by Iran (marked at 283), Israel (marked at 248), and Turkey (marked at 196). World-wide, Bahrain is ranked at 82 out of 222 nations, surpassing countries like China, France, Pakistan, Nigeria, and India.

The figures for Bahrain, the ICPS official noted, were based on data from the US State Department, as well as complied from other estimates because it's hard to “get reliable figures from prison services within Bahrain.”

Indeed, Bahraini authorities are rarely transparent about the actual number of prisoners, going as far as denying that any of the prisoners were arrested over their political stances, and claiming that they were apprehended for “conspiring to overthrow the ruling regime and communicating with foreign entities.”

Continued systematic abuses

The prison population has doubled since 2011. The last time such a major increase has been seen was between 1993 and 1997, coinciding at the time with another uprising, dubbed the “Uprising of Dignity,” that unified leftists, liberals and Islamists to demand democratic reforms. The uprising in the 1990s only ended after Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa became the emir and a National Action Charter, a quasi-constitution, was established through a referendum in 1999.

This suggests that this is a typical pattern used by the Bahraini regime to silence critics, and the available numbers gives credence to that assertion. In 1993, the prison population was marked at 305, while in 1997, at the height of that uprising, the prison population reached 911. The prison population would drop to 437 in 2003, rise to 522 in 2006, and rise even higher to 1,100 in 2010.

But the promises of substantial political reform under Hamad al-Khalifa and the National Action Charter did not end the systematic social and economic discrimination against the majority of the Bahraini population nor the wide-ranging abuses by security forces, which ultimately set the stage for the latest Bahraini uprising three years ago.

Even the Bahraini government commissioned Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), led by M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born American lawyer with a long history working for various UN inquires and tribunals, who could not ignore the systematic abuses it came across. In terms of abuses in prisons, the commission stated:

At least “five persons had died as a result of torture”; during raids by Bahraini security forces they had “intentionally broke down doors, forcibly entered and sometimes ransacked the houses… often accompanied by sectarian insults and verbal abuses..[and] the women were asked to stand in their sleeping clothes, which did not adequately cover their bodies, thus humiliating the women, the children and their arrested spouses or relatives”; techniques of 'mistreatment' were used such as “forced standing”, “severe beatings”, “use of electro-shock devices and cigarettes”, “sleep deprivation”, “threats of rape”, “abuse of a sexual nature”, “solitary confinement”, hangings by arms, and “exposure to extreme temperatures”, among other acts.

A report in regards to prisons by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights released in July suggests that the numerous abuses highlighted by the BICI have not ended.

In the report's introduction, the authors wrote the following: 

"The authorities in Bahrain are desperate to prevent knowledge of these violations from emerging from the prisons. Last summer, the lawyer Abdulaziz Mosa tweeted that he saw marks of torture on the body of his client who was being held at the CID [Criminal Investigation Directorate]; just hours after making this statement, the lawyer himself was arrested. There is a lack of transparency in terms of the conditions that prisoners are subjected to. Few international organizations have been allowed to make prison visits, and in such cases, their schedule is tightly controlled. The government has denied access to all independent local human rights organizations. The government-established National Institute for Human Rights and the Ministry of Interior's Prisons Ombudsman have received numerous complaints over the last year and a half, but these complaints have not resulted in any significant improvement in prisoner conditions. The prison population continues to swell in size, and the prisoners are trapped in an unjust system without any possibility of relief."

The July report is a treasure-trove of information that sheds lights on the murky nature of Bahrain's prison system. Within the 38-page document are descriptions of the four main prison institutions including medical and health services, a breakdown of what a day is like within their walls, and interjected by anonymous first-person accounts of abuses faced by former and current prisoners.

One of the most concerning aspect highlighted by the report is the section on minors. There are over 200 minors held within these prisons, forced to stay side-by-side with adults, and a few have faced torture and sexual abuses.

“At the moment, there are over 200 children behind bars,” Nedal al-Salman, who works for the Women and Children Rights department of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said to Al-Akhbar.

“Some of the children face charges of up to 15 years. One child, 17, has a verdict of up to 34 years in prison based on the cases sentenced against him, and he still has one case to be sentence by the end of this year,” she added.

“These children are charged under the terrorism law, which was created to silence the uprising.”

Similarly, the July report stated, “Children as young as 13 have been sentenced to prison on charges of terrorism in trials that lacked any evidence and despite the fact that the Bahraini law does not define prison punishment for children below the age of 15 in the event of a criminal conviction.”

“People will never stop”

The “swelling prison population” and the enduring abuses within Bahrain's prisons would not be possible without the political cover bestowed onto the Khalifa monarchy by regional states like Saudi Arabia, and western governments like the United States.

“The West is playing double standards. They watch the Syrian movement but neglected and never pointed at Bahrain [because] Bahrain's geographical location neighbors Saudi Arabia, and due to the interests of the US, who has the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and the UK, who benefits from exporting security technology to Bahrain,” Salman argued.

The claims of collusion by powerful Western governments with the Khalifa monarchy are hard to dismiss. As the Economist reported in an article following Khawaja's arrest, “Ms. Khawaja accused the British government of cooperating with Bahrain when she was blocked from boarding a British Airways flight from Copenhagen to Bahrain in 2013. Mr [Nabeel] Rajab [another prominent Bahraini activist] likewise claims to have been treated “like a criminal” by British authorities when he was detained on arrival from Bahrain at Heathrow in May.”

To buttress the point even further, a number of US diplomatic cable documents released by WikiLeaks in 2011, reveals how deep and “cozy”the relationship is between the US and Bahrain's authorities.

Despite these immense obstacles, the protests in Bahrain – while not in the limelight anymore – have not ended against the two hundred year-old rule of the Khalifa family, and the issue of prisoners has only worked to galvanize the movement onwards.

The uprising has, in part, moved from the streets to the jail cells, where the same struggle continues under a different face and through different tactics.

The hunger strikes, the protests against continuous repression and discrimination by the authorities, and the never-ending calls for the immediate release of all prisoners reveal that the Bahraini struggle for self-determination is far from over. Rather, as long as political, social, and economic injustices remain, other uprisings will undoubtedly materialize in the future as they have in the past.

“Nightly protests are still happening as people have nothing more to lose,” Salman had said to Al-Akhbar English. “Most families have a member who was arrested or tortured or dismissed from their jobs. The call for freedom and the demand are higher now, and people will never stop till they get their rights.”


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