Bahrain Takes Advantage of the Sanitary Crisis to Step Up its Repression of the Opposition

Though Bahrain has often been accused of serious violations of human rights, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already caused 1,384 deaths (15 August 2021) among a population of around 1.7 million, has further contributed to the intensification of the regime’s repressive and freedom-killing practices.

In Jaw prison
Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP

Already in 2020, Amnesty International’s yearly report1 told of a worsening of the situation in that tiny Gulf State. While the new restrictions infringe upon a freedom of expression already seriously gagged, human rights violations have been especially visible in the management of the country’s prisons. As reported in The Guardian, prisoners’ protest movements have been severely put down, but have revealed a serious deterioration of prison conditions due to the pandemic: overcrowding, ill-treatment, poor hygiene, and inaccessibility of medical care for inmates, all of which are a source of worry for the NGOs and international bodies.

In the name of sanitary security

Indeed, taking advantage of the healthcare crisis, Bahrain has tightened official control of critical voices and the surveillance of foreign residents, arguing the need to keep track of population movements.

In fact, any criticism of the way the crisis is being handled is now punishable by law. As was already the case with the war in Yemen, among other examples, when the government banned any criticism of its policies on the pretext of “national security,” it has profited by the sanitary crisis, according to Amnesty International, to silence any criticism of its actions by claiming that “the present circumstances,” demand “full support for the organisations and institutions of the State.”

By thus instrumentalising the pandemic, the Bahraini government has implemented increasingly extensive surveillance systems, enabling it to control and repress the publication and dissemination of “fake news” and “biased rumours”.

The assistant regional director of Amnesty International, Lynn Maalouf, has denounced these strategies used by Bahrain as well as other Gulf monarchies, “to stifle any public debate, in the present instance concerning the pandemic.” Armed with a legislative arsenal designed to fight terrorism and to ensure cyber-security, strengthened even further by a constitutional amendment adopted in April 2017 which made it possible to try civilians accused of threatening national security in a military court, Bahrain has extended its scope to include public criticism of the management of the Covid pandemic. Thus, Amnesty International has criticised the bullying and intimidation of many Bahrainis merely for talking about the pandemic.

The recent restrictions have been added to a long list: thus, there no longer exists any independent media in this country since the newspaper Al-Wasat was shut down in June 2017, not to mention the dissolution of every political association described as oppositional. The government uses censorship and surveillance; every publication is subject to authorisation and so are all messages on the social networks. In addition to which, since 2014, the kingdom refuses to allow entrance to any human rights observers from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or any UN human rights protection bodies such as the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, intending to investigate restrictions of freedom and repression of human rights activists in Bahrain.

No criticism of the handling of the healthcare crisis is permissible. This is perfectly in line with the refusal to tolerate any dissidence whatsoever: for the past few years now, the convictions for propagation of fake news have been used to silence dissident voices like that of attorney Abdullah Hasjim, convicted in 2019 of abusive use of the social networks and the publication of fake news for tweets posted between 2017 and 2019, accusing the regime of corruption, or those of activist Nabeel Rajab, sentenced to 5 years in gaol in 2018 for tweets criticising the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

Besides having extended the scope of offences and crimes involving national security, the Bahraini government has also stepped up its surveillance using tracing tools, officially meant to combat the spread of the virus but whose massive application has some NGOs worried. Denounced by Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR) and Amnesty International, these tracing applications are seen as threats to privacy and contrary to Bahrain’s own legislation which since 2018 includes a law dealing with the protection of personal data. Among others, the application BeAwareBahrain has been accused by Amnesty of being “one of the world’s most intrusive” because of the amounts of personal information which it collects and its use of GPS data in real time.

These arrangements are seen as out of proportion in terms of the respect for individual freedom, while soon after its implementation, the government launched the use of an electronic bracelet which made it possible to track active cases of the disease, informing the Ministry of Health in the event the person wearing the bracelet should leave home. The sophistication of surveillance techniques combined with a legal framework meant to discourage free speech attests to an increased authoritarianism under cover of the healthcare crisis.

Overcrowded prisons and the worsening of hygienic conditions

Despite the release of 1,500 inmates from prisons of every sort, the overcrowding problem persists, and has prompted human rights NGOs like Amnesty International to multiply their efforts to obtain the release of people who should never have been gaoled in the first place, i.e., political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. If the NGOs insist on the need to release more prisoners, it is because they are increasingly worried about the conditions prevailing in the country’s prisons. Although the Bahraini government is anything but transparent on the subject—the only public announcement dates from the end of March 2021 and mentions only three cases in Jaw prison—the reality is quite different, as revealed in The Guardian by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), a British NGO which reports no less than 138 cases of Covid since the beginning of March in the Jaw prison alone.

Furthermore, and despite governmental assertions to the contrary, inmates complain that they do not always have a choice of vaccines and are not always able to be vaccinated at all. Healthcare management in Bahraini prisons (particularly the vaccination campaign) seems deficient and dangerous for the health of inmates, considering that there was one death from Covid on 9 June 2021.

In addition to the overcrowding, there is a major deterioration of the sanitary conditions which the government has made no effort to correct despite the pandemic. In 2020, a US State Department report on human rights in Bahrain refers to this flagrant overcrowding, on the one hand, and on the other to inmates’ difficulty in gaining access to water and to medical care. Despite governmental declarations to the contrary, many reports stress the lack of access to water for washing purposes and the lack of hydraulic systems or their unhygienic state in prisons. Similarly, the BIRD reported the beginnings of an epidemic of scabies in 2020 at Jaw prison because of bad hygienic practices. While the poor conditions of detention in Bahraini prisons have already been the object of protests, especially in 2015 in Jaw prison, today it is the government’s passivity which worries observers: sanitary measures such as social distancing were put into practice very belatedly.

In April 2021 again, Amnesty International denounced the non-respect of sanitary rules in Bahraini prisons: inmates were not supplied with masks or hydro-alcoholic gels. Thus the lack of hygiene and sanitary measures during the pandemic has made the situation even worse, endangering the health of inmates, some of whom are aged or otherwise vulnerable.

Discrimination against political prisoners: no medical treatment

The regime’s main targets are its political opponents, and these have paid a heavy price during the sanitary crisis. We must remember that ever since the 2011 uprisings, when protestors demanded basic reforms of the political system, the Kingdom’s courts convicted and imprisoned many human rights activists, political opponents and attorneys after unfair trials based on confessions that were either imaginary or extracted under torture.

While some 1,500 prisoners have been released in compliance with international recommenda-tions meant to stem the spread of the virus in enclosed spaces, very few of these reduced sentences have concerned the political prisoners that fill the prisons since 2011 and who number some 4000, according to Nabeel Rajab’s estimation. Indeed, the Salam DRH report2 stresses the fact that only a very few political prisoners were released during that period, such as Nabeel Rajab, an eminent human rights activist and chairman of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BHCR), convicted of inciting hatred against the regime and spreading fake news with his tweets against the war in Yemen, who was released on 9 June 2020.

This discrimination against political prisoners has continued during the healthcare crisis when the conditions of detention worsened considerably. The infectiousness of the disease highlighted the structural problem of prison overcrowding. In Jaw prison, the largest in the country, there are presently 2,700 inmates for a capacity of only 1,201, according to Human Rights First, a US NGO, banned in Bahrain since 2012.

Deprived of medical care

The lack of hygiene is not however, the only cause of the worsening conditions of detention. Already, in September 2019, the UN Task Force on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Special Rapporteur on the Right of every person to enjoy the best possible state of physical and mental health, had informed the Bahraini government of their concern about its presumed refusal to grant adequate and necessary health care for serious health problems affecting dozens of detainees in Jaw prison, as revealed in the above-mentioned report by Salam DRH in December 2020.

Though the government replied that the prisons were staffed with experienced medical personnel and equipped with up-to-date facilities, prisoners said they had difficulties getting proper care, including prisoners suffering from chronic ailments requiring regular treatments, according to the report issued by the US State Department. Thus, a report published jointly by two NGOs, Salam DHR and the Bahrein Forum for Human Rights, show that the most serious forms of torture and ill-treatment detected over the past few years in the country’s prisons consist of denials to access of medical care. Indeed, to quote the report, “from January 2018 to 15 March 2021, 776 violations of the right to appropriate and necessary medical treatment have been reported.”

This denial of care, which is contrary to Bahrain’s international obligations in matters of human rights has been especially aimed at prominent political opponents among the inmates, such as Hassan Mushaima or Abduljalil Al-Singace, who both suffer from various chronic ailments.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) addressed this issue in April 20213, following the violent repression of a peaceful sit-in organised at Jaw prison following the death of political prisoner Abbas Mal Allah on 5 April 2021 for lack of the medical care he needed. The UN demanded that the government conduct “a thorough and efficient investigation of the repression of that sit-in” and provide information on prisoners’ well-being and guarantees of their access to health care, while the government continues to claim that there are no active cases of Coronavirus in Jaw prison and that prisoners have access to tests and vaccinations.

The death on 9 June 2021 of political prisoner Hussein Barakat due to complications connected with the Coronavirus once again aroused widespread protests. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the streets of Driah, accusing the King of being responsible for the death of Hussein Barakat, who had received a double dose of the vaccine Sinopharm but whose declining health had not been considered by the prison officials. Indeed, according to Salam DHR, “despite the diagnosis of a severe oxygen deficiency, Barakat was sent back to his cell where he was confined for five days until his condition quickly worsened.”

King Hamed Beb Issa Khalifa’s official statement on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which he stressed “democratic values and the respect for human rights” as the “two wings that shall carry Bahrain into the future”4 loses its splendour in the face of the realities of the sanitary situation.

This Gulf monarchy, which has never paid any attention to international disapproval, is locking itself into an increasingly repressive pattern, one which is indifferent to issues of human rights, despite the warnings of NGOs and the international community. Its implementation of the health care crisis in order to step up repression and censorship, especially against political prisoners, bodes ill for the future of a country which is moving every day further away from even a semblance of a democratic transition.

1Amnesty International, Report: The State of Human Rights in the World, 2020/21, 7 April 2021.

2Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, Briefing: Human Rights Situation in Bahrain November 2020, 26 December 2020.

3OHCHR, “Press briefing notes on Bahrain », 30 April 2021.

4Bahrain Foreign Ministry.