Hundreds of inmates at Bahrain’s Jau Prison are on hunger strike. As the unrest spreads to the streets, will the authorities learn from past crackdowns and accept protestors’ demands?
On 7 August 2023, hundreds of inmates in Bahrain’s Jau Prison announced a hunger strike to protest harsh prison conditions—laying the grounds for a highly volatile situation which presents the Kingdom with its latest domestic challenge. By 19 August 2023, the number participating in the strike had increased to at least 500, raising the stakes in Bahrain’s main detention centre for political dissidents.
In recent weeks, Bahrain has witnessed protests break out throughout the country in solidarity with the striking prisoners. with protesters using the #لنا_حق (We have a right) and slogans such as “the chains will break” and “free Bahrain’s political prisoners”. On 18 August 2023—the second week into the strike—tyres were burning in Al Daih village, west of the capital Manama. As the protests spill out on the streets the authorities cannot risk the prospect of a public funeral of a prisoner who dies on hunger strike.
There is an unpredictability about hunger striking, as we saw in 1981 in Northern Ireland where some apparently healthy prisoners had underlying medical conditions triggered by a lack of food. Prisoners currently on strike in Bahrain have reported dangerously low sugar levels, and some have reportedly fainted.
The death of one or more of the prisoners would present Bahrain with a crisis management challenge that the Kingdom’s authorities will be unable to handle.
Granting the demands of the prisoners is by far the best option for the government. These include:
- Ending security isolation for prisoners
- Providing access to adequate healthcare and education
- Reforming stringent rules regarding family visits
- Ending 23-hour lockdowns in cells and allowing more time outside
- Allowing access to the prison mosque for congregational prayers
The country’s discredited Ombudsman (the Interior Ministry’s official “oversight body”) provided a misguided and unhelpful response on August 12, claiming that the demands violated Bahrani Law. This claim has been systematically debunked by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a UK-based human rights organisation, which argued that the Ombudsman’s response serves to legitimise the degrading policies within Jau Prison while failing to address any of the real concerns raised by the striking inmates.
Most of the demands require minimal effort on the part of the authorities. In fact, the majority of the recommendations can be resolved through the implementation of already existing rules, such as guaranteeing one hour visits and allowing access to the mosques located within the prison. Similarly, if authorities ended twenty-three-hour daily lockdowns, prisoners could enjoy access to more sunlight as well as to the designated mosques. Authorities must also remove the glass barriers that were installed as an arbitrary “security” measure in February 2017, separating the inmate and the visitor.
This strike was a long time coming. It is not the first, but it is the largest of several protests against harsh prison conditions by prisoners in Jau Prison since 2011.
In March 2015, some prisoners protested against overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. The protests resulted in a riot as authorities responded with excessive force. In April 2021, prisoners protested again against detention conditions, particularly the lack of access to medical treatment. Prison authorities responded to the peaceful prisoner sit-in with disproportionate force, as special forces threw stun grenades and beat detainees, badly injuring many of them. This use of force was condemned by international experts, including the UN human rights office (OHCHR).
Bahrain’s leadership keeps failing to learn the lesson that by refusing to negotiate in good conscience, they are escalating the crisis—as witnessed in 2015 and 2021. Over the weekend, authorities finally spoke to the prisoners but have yet to enter into the sort of serious negotiations required.
The authorities’ failure to resolve the crisis and their likely violent response (as seen before) should worry Bahrain’s Western allies, who assume a level of competence from the country’s ruling family.
So far, Bahrain’s government has shown itself unable to cope with the crisis.
We can only hope that they see sense before someone dies.