Top Left: Ahmed Humaidan, © 2012 Hussain Al Bahrani. Clockwise from top right: Ahmed Mushaima, Jaffar Al Aoun, and Naji Fateel.

(Beirut) – Families of some inmates at Jaw Prison in Bahrain have been allowed no contact with them since unrest broke out there on March 10, 2015. Authorities should immediately allow all prisoners to make phone calls to their families and resume scheduled visits.

Many prisoners were able to make phone calls to their families again on March 24, families and other sources indicated. But family members of four inmates told Human Rights Watch that they have received no phone calls from their imprisoned relatives since March 10 and have been told by police and prison staff authorities that they cannot visit. Credible sources said the number of these inmates may be as high as 80.

“Families that have received no word from their imprisoned relatives are understandably becoming very anxious,” said Joe Stork deputy Middle East and North Africa director. ”The Bahraini authorities need to allow all Jaw Prison inmates to contact their families at once to let them know they are safe.”

An outbreak of violence on March 10 led the prison authorities to send the security forces into buildings 1, 3, 4, and 6 of the prison. The relatives of the four prisoners said that before March 10 they had received regular calls from the detained men and had been able to visit them.

Government-controlled newspapers have reported that the March 10 unrest was the result of violence by prisoners after an altercation between prison guards and three visitors on March 10. Local rights groups allege, however, that security forces used excessive force against prisoners, many of them held on politically motivated charges, and that poor prison conditions contributed to the unrest.

Bahrain authorities should investigate whether the force used by prison authorities was lawful and strictly necessary, Human Rights Watch said. On March 19, a government-controlled newspaper reported that a team of investigators visited Jaw Prison and spoke to 124 inmates, “regarding the conditions of the facility and services provided.” The report added that the investigators received 15 complaints “regarding different issues.”

A family member of Ahmed Mushaima, held in building 4, said the family has not heard from him since he called from prison on March 8, although he previously had called every two days. On March 23, the family was able to visit Ahmed’s father, Hasan Mushaima, one of 13 high-profile opposition leaders in building 7, but prison staff told them that Ahmed Mushaima was forbidden to attend that meeting. He is serving a 1-year sentence for insulting Bahrain’s king.

A family member of Ahmed Humaidan, an award-winning photographer serving a 10-year sentence for allegedly attacking a police station, told Human Rights Watch the family has had no communication with him since March 10. The family member said Ahmad, held in building 4, normally called the family twice a week. He tried to visit on March 30, but a police officer denied him entry and told him no visits were allowed.

A family member of Jaffar Ali Aoun, also in building 4, said that the family has not heard from him since March 8. He typically called his family three times a week. The ombudsman in the Interior Ministry has not replied to emails requesting information, the family said, and when they called the ombudsman, a staff member told them only that “there are a lot of detainees.” On March 26, a family member went to Jaw Prison for a scheduled visit but said he was told by a police officer that all visits were cancelled.

The wife of the human rights activist Naji Fateel said she has not heard from her husband since March 10. On March 24, she attempted to make a scheduled visit but said she was told by a member of prison staff that visits were “suspended indefinitely.” Fateel, who is also held in building 4, is serving a 15-year sentence for allegedly establishing a group that aimed to change the constitution. His trial was marred by allegations of torture and there was a lack of evidence of that he had engaged in criminal activity.

A September 2013 report from the ombudsman detailed serious overcrowding in Jaw Prison. Bahrain set up a 12-member commission on the rights of prisoners and detainees that month. In August 2014, the commission issued a report on conditions at Dry Dock Detention Center, but it has yet to report on conditions at Jaw Prison.

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.”

“If Bahrain wants to be viewed with any credibility, its commission on the rights of prisoners and detainees should ensure that visiting rights at Jaw Prison are restored without delay,” Stork said.