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Bahrain: Families Denied Prison Access After Unrest

Investigate Overcrowding; Ensure Family Contact for Prisoners

(Beirut) – Authorities denied many prisoners contact with their families for up to 13 days in the aftermath of violent unrest at Jaw Prison on March 10, 2015. Bahraini authorities should order an investigation into overcrowding at the prison and the circumstances of the violence.

“Bahraini security forces have a track record of using excessive force, so it’s natural that prisoners’ families were worried by lack of contract with relatives in Jaw Prison,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The authorities should now determine whether overcrowded prison conditions contributed to the unrest and if the force used to quell it was proportionate.”

Government-controlled newspapers claimed that inmates, many of whom are being held on politically motivated charges, engaged in violence after an altercation between prison guards and three visitors on March 10. Local rights groups, however, allege that security forces used excessive force against prisoners and that poor prison conditions contributed to the unrest.

Zahra al-Koofi, one of the three visitors involved in the altercation with prison staff, told Human Rights Watch that at least 10 inmates witnessed the incident, which led to her arrest and that of her sister and brother-in-law. She said the group had missed their 10 a.m. visiting time with one family member and that prison staff refused to allow them an unscheduled visit with a second family member. Zahra al-Koofi and her brother-in-law were released the same day without charge, but her sister Leila remains in custody in Isa Town detention center on charges of assaulting a female prison officer.

According to credible local sources Human Rights Watch interviewed, the incident sparked unrest in buildings 1, 3, 4, and 6 of Jaw Prison and led to the deployment of security forces in the prison. Images that Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify began to circulate on social media, apparently showing security forces inside the prison, the use of teargas inside the prison, and injured prisoners. On March 11, the Gulf Daily News reported that “pictures apparently taken inside the prison and uploaded to the Internet yesterday are believed to have been taken by inmates using smuggled mobile phones.”

According to local rights groups many inmates called their families and reported that the security forces were using tear gas and rubber bullets in their efforts to regain control of the blocks affected by unrest. Human Rights Watch is not able to determine on the basis of available information whether or not the use of force by prison officials was proportionate to the threat they faced. 

Family members of 18 Jaw Prison inmates contacted Human Rights Watch to say that they were unable to visit or communicate with their detained family members after the March 10 operation by security forces. Credible local sources told Human Rights Watch that many prisoners were able to make phone calls to their families on March 24.

The wife of Naji Fateel, a human rights activist who received a 15-year sentence in September 2013 for establishing a group that aimed to change the constitution, said that an official at Jaw prison told her on March 11 that authorities had suspended all communication with and visits to inmates in building 4 because of damage done during the disturbances.

Khadeeja al-Mousawi told Human Rights Watch she was granted access to the prison on March 15 to visit her husband, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Her husband is one of 13 high-profile prisoners detained on politically motivated grounds and held in building 7, separate from the general prison population. She told Human Rights Watch that she saw staff denying family members access to the prison on the grounds that the prison was too badly damaged to allow them in. She said, though, that the prison did not look any different than on her previous visits.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja began a hunger strike on March 2 to protest violations of prisoners’ rights, demanding, among other things, that prison authorities address “the generally bad situation in the prison, especially in the recent period.” He has said that he will also stop taking glucose and minerals if prison authorities do not accede to his demands by March 29.

Overcrowding in Jaw Prison was cited in a September 2013 report from the ombudsman within the Bahrain Ministry of in the Interior Ministry, which said that 1608 detainees were in a facility with a capacity of 1201 – making it 34 percent over capacity. The ombudsman reported that building 3, with a capacity of 72, then held 154 detainees, 62 of them children. Building 1 was 46 percent over capacity, and the number of inmates in building 4 exceeded its capacity by 34 percent.

Although there are no figures for 2014 or 2015, in 2014, Bahraini courts sentenced more than 200 defendants to long prison sentences, including at least 70 to life terms, on terrorism or national security charges. All male convicts serve their sentences in Jaw Prison.

The Bahrain Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission, set up by Royal Decree in 2013, has yet to report on conditions at Jaw Prison, but in August 2014 issued its first report on conditions in Dry Dock detention center, which since 2012 has been used for pretrial detention. Among other recommendations, it called for “urgent action to ensure the cleanliness of the wings and periodic overall maintenance” and the establishment of “procedures for the legal use of force in DDDC … with the provision of proper training for the staff.”

Article 37 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that “prisoners shall be allowed under necessary supervision to communicate with their family and reputable friends at regular intervals, both by correspondence and by receiving visits.”

Article 54 of the Standard Minimum Rules states that “[o]fficers of the institutions shall not, in their relations with the prisoners, use force except in self-defence or in cases of attempted escape, or active or passive physical resistance to an order based on law or regulations. Officers who have recourse to force must use no more than is strictly necessary.…”

“Bahraini authorities should order an independent investigation to get to the bottom of what happened on March 10 at Jaw Prison,” Stork said. “That investigation should include whether the prison officials’ use of force was lawful and strictly necessary.”

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