Tehran (Tasnim) – When imprisoned Bahraini activist Abdullah Habeeb Swar got a cough that lasted several days, his 14 cellmates feared that he might have been infected with the coronavirus and spread it through their crowded wing.
They share a cell that is designed for eight people in one of the three wings in Manama Jaw Prison and is reserved for inmates who have been sentenced for security reasons.
“You can imagine how scared they were,” said Swar Reuters over the phone, referring to the coughing spells last month.
He is one of hundreds of opposition politicians, activists, journalists and human rights defenders who have been convicted in mass trials. Swar was arrested in 2019 after six years in hiding and a 40-year prison sentence, saying he had not been seen by a doctor.
Western Allied Bahrain has been put under pressure by human rights organizations for conditions such as overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of medical care.
Together with other countries in the Middle East and beyond, it has released some vulnerable prisoners, such as pregnant women, in response to the epidemic. The country has registered more than 800 COVID-19 cases with five deaths.
However, the approximately 1,500 released people so far exclude people who are imprisoned for reasons of national security.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, last week jointly urged the Bahraini authorities to release those who “have peacefully exercised their freedom of expression”, particularly elderly prisoners or people with existing health conditions.
“The authorities don’t want to be seen to bow to political pressure,” said Marc Owen Jones of the Department of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.
Bahrain, a close ally of the United States in the Persian Gulf region, has been witnessing almost daily protests against the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty since early 2011. Manama took stubborn measures to put down the demonstrations.
The ongoing crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations has killed many Bahrainis and injured and arrested hundreds of others.
The rights group expressed particular concern about aging prisoners or people with illnesses, including opposition leader Hassan Mushaima and activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja.
“Al Khawaja turned 60 this week and he’s the youngest,” said Ala’a Shehabi, a researcher at University College London.
Prominent among the younger political prisoners are Sheikh Ali Slaman, leader of the disbanded al-Wefaq opposition group, and human rights defender Nabeel Rajab.
The government said it was “absolutely committed” to protecting those in its prison system. “The prison population is tested regularly. So far, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bahrain’s prisons,” a statement told Reuters.
As a precaution, prison authorities have banned family visits, inmate Ali Hussein al-Haji Reuters said on the phone. But he and other prisoners said that most prison guards and other staff do not wear protective equipment.
“If the corona virus spreads in Bahrain’s overcrowded prison, the effect would be catastrophic,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in London.