DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain prison inmates are taking part in a hunger strike over conditions there, activists and authorities said Wednesday, the latest sign of simmering unrest in the island kingdom a decade after the Arab Spring.
The strike targets the Jaw Rehabilitation and Reform Center, a facility holding many of the prisoners identified by human rights activists as dissidents who oppose the rule of the Al Khalifa family. The country’s Sunni rulers long have faced complaints from the island’s Shiite majority of discrimination.
In a statement published by the outlawed Al-Wefaq opposition group, the prisoners said they started the hunger strike over what it described as prison officials blocking inmates from worshipping and 23-hour lockdowns daily. It also alleged prison officials put inmates in isolation arbitrarily, interfered with family visits and provided inadequate health care to those incarcerated.
“Our demands are not trifles, but very necessary and required for human life, even at the lowest levels known to human history,” the prisoners’ statement read.
Two prison blocks at Jaw started their hunger strike on Monday, while three others started on Tuesday, said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, an exiled activist in Britain with the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. Alwadaei described those in the blocks taking part in the hunger strike as “political prisoners.”
The prisoners put the number of those taking part in the strike in the hundreds, though that could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press. Several issued audio messages, later shared by activists, confirming the hunger strike.
Responding to questions from AP, Bahrain’s General Directorate of Reform and Rehabilitation said that some inmates at Jaw had “returned their meals” on Tuesday. It did not provide a number of those taking part in the hunger strike, but insisted prisons allowed Shiites to commemorate Ashoura and “enjoy their full rights” and health care.
Officials “will continue to monitor the conditions of the inmates who have returned their meals to ensure the quality of the services provided and to address their concerns within the framework of adherence to the law and respect for human rights,” the government statement said.
Jaw is toward the southern end of Bahrain, an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf that’s about the size of New York City with a population of around 1.5 million people. Concerns over medical care at the prison have been raised before by activists.
The U.S. State Department’s recent human rights report on Bahrain noted prisoners’ families reported a tuberculosis outbreak at the prison in June 2022. The government denied an outbreak took place, but inaugurated a 24-hour clinic at the prison months afterward, the State Department said.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet, is in the midst of a decadelong crackdown on all dissent after the 2011 Arab Spring protests, which saw the island’s Shiite majority and others demanding more political freedom.
Since Bahrain put down the protests with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it has imprisoned Shiite activists, deported others, stripped hundreds of their citizenship and closed its leading independent newspaper. It meanwhile recognized Israel diplomatically and hosted Pope Francis last November.