Bahrain's Image Hurt By Prison Reality

03/24/2017 10:59 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2017
Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, serving a life sentence for his peaceful dissent.
Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, serving a life sentence for his peaceful dissent.

Jailed in 1849 for four years for discussing peaceful political reform by a tsarist elite fearful of change, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevksy said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Jailed in 2011 for life for discussing peaceful political reform by a monarchist elite fearful of change, Bahraini dissident Abdul Al Khawaja is living the brutality of Bahrain’s Jau Prison.

He is one of a dozen or so leading dissidents held together in the notorious jail which houses hundreds more prisoners. Jau witnessed widespread rioting in March 2015 and an escape earlier this year in which a security officer was killed. Jau has long had an appalling record over overcrowding and abuse.

Recent reports emerging from Jau detail the targeting of prominent dissidents, including Al Khawaja. His family say he has been having serious problems with his right eye for over three weeks, but is being denied adequate medical care. “After daylight he loses complete vision, and during the day he can't see well. He has headaches on the right side of his head and behind his right eye,” they said.

A Norwegian doctor familiar with the symptoms said what he's experiencing is “consistent with severe eye disease that needs immediate attention by an ophthalmologist.”

Families of the leading dissidents also say that all medical appointments and hospital visits have been cancelled despite some prisoners having waited a long time to see medics, that all spousal visits have been cancelled, all higher officers to the prison have been completely stopped, and letters of complaint are no longer answered. In a sharp deterioration of conditions, say the families, the prisoners are now no longer allowed access to pencils or paper, and are only allowed outside their cells if they are handcuffed and chained from their wrists to their ankles.

Even Dostoyevsky was allowed to write in his prison cell, and you have to wonder at the insecurity of the Bahrain regime that it remains so fearful of the dissidents in Jau and their ideas. Al Khawaja is in danger of losing sight in his eye but the authorities seem determined to punish him further. In 2011 he was tortured and his jaw fractured.

Since then virtually all other leading political opposition figures and human rights activists have either been forced out of Bahrain or sent to prison. Those who continue to speak up against the repressive regime, even from outside the country, risk having their families targeted in reprisals.

Washtington’s ally tries to represent itself as a modern, reliable, business-friendly state. This week Bahrain’s Foreign Minister was in the U.S. meeting with top executives from Lockheed Martin. But not everyone is fooled.

The truth is that Bahrain remains an unsteady, erratic monarchy ruled by a family that shuts its political opposition in jail and prevents peaceful activists from getting decent medical care. Al Khawaja is a Danish citizen, and the Danish Foreign Minister was grilled by Danish MPs this week unhappy at the failure to secure Al Khawaja’s release, with questions about the future of Danish trade with Bahrain if he stays in jail. “What if Al Khawaja dies?...We know they are torturing our citizen,” said MP Lars Aslan Rasmussen bluntly.

Official Bahrain state media does its best to mask the reality. Its news agency featured a story this week about an art exhibition in the Gulf monarchy opened by “Her Royal Highness Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, Wife of HM the King.” The BAB2017 art show apparently “includes a number of masterpieces created by Her Royal Highness.” Tellingly headlined “Princess Sabeeka: BAB2017 showcases Bahrain's civilised image, progress” it reveals Bahrain’s craving for international acceptance.

It must be frustrating for the regime when its society’s civilization isn’t judged by its lavish art shows but by Dostoyevsky’s measurement of prison conditions. Yet it’s something it can easily fix - release Al Khawaja and all those wrongfully detained and immediately provide all prisoners with adequate medical care.

Al Khawaja - shut away but still an inspiration to a younger generation of Bahrainis.
Al Khawaja - shut away but still an inspiration to a younger generation of Bahrainis.
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