'At least 500' prisoners on hunger strike in Bahrain over prison conditions, amid US 'concern'

'At least 500' prisoners on hunger strike in Bahrain over prison conditions, amid US 'concern'
With Bahrain's hunger strike for humane prison conditions now involving at least 500 prisoners of conscience, the US has registered its 'concern'.
3 min read
18 August, 2023
The hunger strike began on August 9 and has since gathered momentum [Getty]

The British-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) confirmed on Friday that "at least 500 Bahraini prisoners" are now taking part in a hunger strike protesting inhumane prison conditions and violations of their rights. 

Prisoners at the Jau prison have been subjected to 23-hour cell confinement and restrictions on prayer, according to the banned opposition and a rights group. The prison holds dissidents detained when authorities crushed pro-democracy protests in 2011, with many of the prisoners simply being held for expressing what they have called their basic human rights. The hunger strike began on August 9 and has escalated ever since, with more prisoners joining the call.

According to a statement from the inmates released via the outlawed Al-Wefaq opposition party, the hunger strike includes demands for increased time outside their cells,  which is currently limited to one hour per-day, prayers in congregation at the prison mosque, changes to constraints on family visits, improvements to education facilities and access to proper medical care.

“These are not frivolous demands, but necessary ones required for basic human life,” the prisoners concluded.

The United States said Thursday it has shared concern with its key ally Bahrain over prison conditions after inmates announced an unprecedented hunger strike over their treatment.

US State Department Spokesman Vedant Patel responded to questions on the situation in Bahrain by saying that Secretary of State Antony Blinken "expressed concern about some of these reports" during a July 20 meeting with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdellatif al-Zayani.

"We are aware of and concerned on the reports of this hunger strike ... We urge Bahrain to continue to make progress on criminal justice reforms and ensure human rights standards are upheld," Patel said.

US 'enabling' repression

Bahrain, whose Sunni monarchy has a tense relationship with Shia Iran, is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is at the forefront of the Gulf standoff with Tehran. However, Bahraini activists have distanced themselves from the Iranian regime and claim the Sunni-majority rulers and its Gulf allies use the spectre of Iran to justify keeping the Shia majority under tight political control. Others would point to the recent moves from Manama and Tehran towards a restoration of normal diplomacy.

With support from a military force from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain crushed the peaceful 2011 protests which had demanded a constitutional monarchy and a democratically elected prime minister.

The tiny island nation has one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the Middle East. An estimated 3,800 people are behind bars, of which BIRD estimates that 1,200 are prisoners of conscience.

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Activists have said that the ruling monarchy in the country are hugely dependent on their Western allies, particularly the US, and that successive US administrations have enabled the Bahraini regime by not wielding leverage over the state to curb its human rights abuses. 

Bahrain faced US criticism at the time of its initial crushing of the 2011 uprising, with former president Barack Obama imposing an arms embargo for four years. However, critics have pointed out that despite Obama's initial criticism, scrutiny on human rights in Bahrain diminished under Obama and even more so under his successor Donald Trump.

Trump fully embraced Bahrain, which won the former US president's praise for recognising Israel as part of the Abraham Accords

Agencies contributed to this report