Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab arrives for his appeal hearing at court in Manama, February 11, 2015. © 2015 Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

On March 17, the Bahraini Interior Ministry announced it had released 1,486 detainees for “humanitarian reasons, in the backdrop of current circumstances,” a likely reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. About 900 of them were granted royal pardons, while 585 were given non-custodial sentences under Bahrain’s law on alternative sentencing. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that among them, around 300 political prisoners were released.

While this prisoner release – the largest since the nationwide pro-democracy uprising began in 2011 – is a positive measure, it is insufficient. Bahraini authorities have not released any prominent political leaders or human rights defenders. Human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, imprisoned since 2016 for tweets alleging torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison and criticizing the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led military campaign in Yemen, remains behind bars. Abduljalil al-Singace, 57, and Hassan Mushaima, 71, both leaders in the unlicensed opposition group Al-Haq, also remain imprisoned. Both suffer from serious chronic ailments.

A political prisoner released from Jaw Prison – Bahrain’s largest - and granted a non-custodial sentence on March 19 told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities did not disclose their plans to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection or ensure detainees had access to vital information about the virus, including how to protect themselves against infection. He added that prison authorities did not take any additional precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, including sanitizing the prison or providing detainees with cleaning supplies and protective gear. Prison authorities suspended all visits on February 25, which prevents prisoners’ families from assisting their loved ones.

Bahrain’s prisons are plagued by hygiene problems. There was a scabies outbreak at the Dry Dock Detention Center in January 2020, infecting more than half the prison’s population. In 2016, a government watchdog found that some buildings in the Jaw Prison suffered from “bad hygiene,” “insect infestation,” and “broken toilets.” Yet prisoners, including high-profile ones, were routinely denied adequate medical care.

Bahraini authorities should respond to this global pandemic by releasing those wrongfully held behind bars. They should provide appropriate information on hygiene and supplies and ensure all areas accessible to prisoners, prison staff, and visitors are disinfected regularly. They should develop plans for housing people exposed to or infected with the virus in isolation and ensure that appropriate medical care is available.