Bahrain: Human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja faces reprisals in detention after protesting poor prison conditions

19/12/2017
Press release

One of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defenders, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence for his human rights work, has protested unfair prison regulations. We, the undersigned, call for his release from prison, and barring that, for improved standards in Jau prison.

Al-Khawaja is the Founder and Former President of both the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), as well as the former MENA Protection Coordinator for Front Line Defenders. He has been held in Jau prison, since his sentencing in 2011, along with other human rights defenders and activists including blogger Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace who collectively make up the Bahrain 13.

In the past year, Al-Khawaja and other prisoners of conscience have protested repeatedly about the deteriorating conditions in prison, which mimic the general deterioration of conditions in Bahrain for human rights defenders and civil society.

Since 16 October, all of the prisoners’ belongings have been confiscated, reportedly for the purposes of being searched. When Al-Khawaja and others asked for the confiscated items to be returned, they were told “they are still under investigation." On 10 November, the prison authorities restricted all access to television, radio, books, and there are no independent newspapers available. Now, the only newspapers prisoners infrequently receive are government-backed. In addition, family visits have been further restricted so that prisoners are barely able to have a meaningful conversation. At the same time, all phone calls are closely monitored. Meanwhile, prisoners have also lost access to pens or paper, and all daily activities have been cancelled.

This complete restriction from all independent outside information, and increased restrictions on limited family contact leaves the prisoners feeling completely cut off from the world while facing further constraint in their daily lives. These steps have reportedly come at the direction of the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior.

The undersigned are gravely concerned about Al-Khawaja’s claims that the main purpose of these restrictions is “primarily an act of retribution and secondarily for the of isolation - what the authorities are doing is tantamount to psychological warfare.”

After he sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior in November about the conditions in prison, Al-Khawaja was also denied the right to make any phone calls until 17 December, which the undersigned groups believe appears to be a reprisal against him for raising his complaint.

In Al-Khawaja’s letter to the Ministry of Interior, he expressed that:

1. Even in oppressive countries that arrest, torture and try people, the authorities do not come back after six or seven years to retaliate against the prisoners who are essentially being held hostage because of things happening outside the prison and even outside the country.

2. What is happening is not a sign of strength and courage, but rather evidence of weakness and fear. It is proof that the person in power is feeling unstable, and because he cannot face the world he retaliates against people he’s already holding hostage.

3. If you think that your actions will affect our determination and spirit, then you are committing a big mistake. On the contrary, it only strengthens our will and makes us more intent on continuing down the path we’ve chosen because it reaffirms the righteousness of our cause.

Al-Khawaja and the other high profile activists and human rights defenders have sent many letters of protest about these and previous prison restrictions, including the denial of medication and proper access to healthcare. We the undersigned are alarmed at reports that restrictions to proper medical care are ongoing despite numerous complaints by prisoners as well as international NGOs, the United Nations and other governments.

Yet every letter the detainees send receives a response dismissing their complaints by contending that the prison authorities are acting "according to the regulations."

According to Bahrain’s prison rules, male prisoners have the right to two hours of family visits a month (one hour bi-weekly) and a three-hour monthly visit for their spouses. In addition to violating their own prison rules, the government of Bahrain’s treatment of Al-Khawaja is in violation of a number of international legal principles.

In particular, the prison authorities have failed to meet the standards set forth by the United Nations in the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known also as the Nelson Mandela Rules). Rule 43 states that collective punishment is prohibited as torture or cruel treatment, and that the restriction of family contact cannot be used as punishment and can only be limited as strictly necessary for maintenance and order of the prison.

The interference with family visits, the confiscation of paper and writing instruments, and the revocation of phone use is in violation of Rule 58, which provides that prisoners are entitled to contact with their family, in writing, telecommunications, and in-person visits.

The removal of the television, radio, and newspapers is in violation of Rule 63, which requires that prisoners be informed regularly of important news items. The confiscation of books is also in violation of Rule 64, which states that every prison should keep a library for the use of prisoners. Bahrain has failed to meet each of these minimum standards.

The current situation in Bahrain is dire. Human rights defenders are in jail, banned from travel, are in exile or are being intimidated to prevent them from working. Many human rights defenders have been called for interrogation and some have been abused and tortured, leading to some even announcing their intention to quit their human rights work.

We the undersigned call on the authorities in Bahrain to:

  1. Immediately and unconditionally free Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and other human rights defenders from prison;
  2. Provide proper access to medical care and sanitary conditions in prison;
  3. Allow Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and all prisoners proper access to families; and
  4. Guarantee in all circumstances that human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.
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