Map of Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - U.N. officials are expressing deep concern about the welfare of dozens of prisoners, alleging they are being held incommunicado in Bahrain since police brutally broke up a peaceful sit-in protesting prison conditions.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says police special forces put an end to a sit-in on April 17 in Bahrain’s Jau prison.  The protest began April 5, following the death of political prisoner Abbas Mal Allah, who reportedly had been refused medical treatment.  Authorities have denied these charges, claiming he died of natural causes.

U.N. human rights spokeswoman Marta Hurtado said police violently repressed the peaceful sit-in, reportedly using unnecessary and disproportionate force to dismantle the protest.

“According to accounts received from eyewitnesses of the incident, special forces threw stun grenades and beat detainees on their heads, badly injuring many of them.  The authorities reportedly took 33 protesters to another building in the prison, where they are being kept incommunicado, and have been unable to make contact with families or lawyers, in violation of both national and international law,” he said.

A Bahrain government spokesman maintained the country has a "zero tolerance toward mistreatment of any kind.  In an email to VOA, he said the incident on April 17 was orchestrated by a "small but highly organized group of inmates who closed a number of corridors and used violence to disrupt health services and communication services to to other inmates."  He added that authorities took "proportionate" measures to secure the safety of the other prisoners. 

Tensions have been rising in Jau prison since an outbreak of COVID-19 in the notoriously overcrowded facility.  U.N. officials say the lack of health care in the country’s prison system has been an issue for years.

The spread of the pandemic in Bahrain’s prisons has sparked protests across the country. In response, Hurtado said the authorities have detained dozens of protesters for breaching COVID-19 restrictions.

“We call on the government to immediately launch a thorough and effective investigation into the violent repression of the sit-in at Jau prison.  We also urge them to provide information on the well-being of the 33 prisoners currently held in incommunicado detention, and to ensure they are able to contact their lawyers and families,” he said.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy says at least 60 political prisoners are missing.

The Bahrain government says some prisoners involved were "temporarily" relocated.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government has pardoned more than 1,250 prisoners. The U.N. high commissioner’s office is calling on Bahraini authorities to release more detainees to ease prison congestion. This action, it adds, would reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading throughout the prison population and through the wider public, as well. 

The Bahrain government spokesman maintained there are no active coronavirus cases at the Jau prison and that inmates have access to testing and vaccinations. 

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