Bahraini political prisoners are deeply concerned about the possible spread of coronavirus in Al Khalifa’s overcrowded prisons.
When jailed Bahraini political activist Abdullah Habeeb Swar developed a bad cough that lasted several days, his 14 cellmates feared he might have contracted the coronavirus and would spread it through their overcrowded wing.
They share a cell designed to sleep eight in one of three wings in Manama’s Jaw prison reserved for detainees sentenced on security-related charges.
“You can imagine how scared they were,” Swar told Reuters by telephone, referring to last month’s coughing fits.
He is one of the hundreds of opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders sentenced in mass trials. Detained in 2019 after six years in hiding and serving a 40-year term, Swar said he was not seen by a doctor.
Western-allied Bahrain has come under pressure from human rights organizations over prison conditions including overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of medical care.
The country has recorded more than 800 COVID-19 cases with five deaths.
But the around 1,500 freed so far exclude individuals jailed on national security grounds.
Manama has gone to great lengths to clamp down on any sign of dissent. On March 14, 2011, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were deployed to assist Bahrain in its crackdown.
Scores of people have lost their lives and hundreds of others sustained injuries or got arrested as a result of the crackdown.
Rights group have particularly voiced concern for ageing detainees or those with medical conditions, including opposition leader Hassan Mushaima and activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja.
“Al Khawaja turned 60 this week and he is the youngest,” said Ala’a Shehabi, a researcher at University College London.
Prominent among younger political detainees are Sheikh Ali Slaman, leader of dissolved opposition group al-Wefaq, and human rights defender Nabeel Rajab.
The government claimed it is “absolutely committed” to protecting those in its prison system. “Testing of the prison population is conducted regularly. To date, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bahrain’s prisons,” it said in a statement to Reuters.
Prison authorities have banned family visits as a precaution, inmate Ali Hussein al-Haji told Reuters by telephone. But he and other prisoners said most prison guards and other staff do not wear protective gear.
“If coronavirus were to spread in Bahrain’s overcrowded prison, the effect will be catastrophic,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
-Bahraini political prisoners