On the morning of April 6, 2021, the family of Bahraini political detainee Abbas Malallah, who had been serving out a 15-year sentence in Jau prison, read the shocking news of his death on the website of the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior. The statement listed a heart attack as the cause of death, and failed to mention the chronic diseases that Malallah had suffered during his 10 years in prison. Despite Malallah’s and his family’s repeated requests for treatment, he received no medical attention during this time.
The truthful circumstances around the death of Abbas Malallah also appear not to have been mentioned in the announcement. According to a cellmate of Abbas, the prison administration failed to treat him promptly, delayed transferring him to the hospital after he became unconscious, and ignored other prisoners’ demands for him to be transferred to a doctor, clinic, or hospital. The severe procrastination surrounding his death raises serious concern about the extent of willful negligence exhibited by the prison authorities. It also sheds light on the possible negligent approach to prisoners who test positive for COVID-19. Given the presence of COVID-19 in prisons, it raises the utmost concern for prisoners who remain in this kind of environment with these kinds of officials.
Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain calls for an urgent investigation to uncover the circumstances over the death of prisoner Abbas Malallah, and stresses the need for the rapid release of all political prisoners and detainees.
Abbas Malallah died untreated despite his deteriorating health
Abbas Malallah is a political prisoner who was arrested in 2011 for his activism and support for the 2011 pro-democracy movement. For his activism, he was sentenced to 15 years and six months in prison. Shortly after his arrest, Abbas was severely tortured and shot in the thigh at close range., He was also beaten severely, for which he suffered bruises on his face and chest, and was placed in intensive care for more than a week.
After his arrest, Abbas’ brother denounced the treatment of his brother by the Jau Prison administration saying, “My brother is subjected to humiliating inspections when the family visits him and when he goes to court, in addition to sexual harassment. He even refuses to go out to visit because of this treatment” He also complained that the prison administration deliberately prolongs the time between visits, unlike the rest of the detainees who each received three visits per month.
Abbas had been transferred to the isolation building of Jau Prison for two years. After his return to the main ward, he suffered from heart problems, stomach ulcers, and colon problems. He received no treatment for these health problems. In 2019, Abbas’s 9-year-old son posted a video message in which he announced that his father had begun a hunger strike after being isolated in order to protest for medical treatment and his own release.
Abbas had recently gone on a 10-month phone call strike, during which he refused to contact anyone––including his family––in order to protest against restrictions on guest calls, violations of privacy in the conduct of such calls, as well as to demand treatment for his illnesses and pains.
- Prisoner Abbas Malallah’s family received the news of death on social media
As if the death of their family member was not enough, the family had to learn about the death by reading the Ministry of Interior’s social media post. On April 6, 2021, the Interior Ministry published the death statement without informing the family in advance through a written or oral communication. According to the rules, customs, and minimum human rights standards, the family should have received formal communication from the Ministry of Interior. This lack of decency and consideration for the family’s right to knowledge about the status of their family member reflects the highest degree of negligence by the authorities.
- Eyewitness statements Refute Interior Ministry claims
The Ministry of Interior’s statement claims that when Abbas Malallah requested medical assistance he was immediately transferred to the prison clinic. They further claim that he underwent the necessary first aid until his health stabilized, and that he died while en route to Salmaniya Hospital. However, Mahmoud Issa, a fellow prisoner, published a statement on several social media accounts refuting these allegations.
According to Issa’s statement, Abbas woke up around 12 am thinking that he was suffering from heartburn. He entered the bathroom for 3 to 4 minutes, but upon leaving, at 12:10 am, he fainted. His colleagues began shouting for the police forces and banging on the doors in order to get their attention. At first, the prison administration did not respond to the cries for help of Abbas’ colleagues, but finally two police officers arrived. However, these offices stated that they needed the permission from a superior officer before removing him from the cell. This prompted Abbas’ colleagues to continue knocking on their doors for 10 minutes requesting for an ambulance to be called, until an officer opened the door to tell them that he did not know what to do.
Abbas was not taken to the hospital until 1:30 am, which means that the guards took 45 minutes to call an ambulance. At 3:45 am, an officer told Abbas’ cellmate to collect his clothes and belongings. This officer informed the cellmate that Abbas was in Salmaniya Hospital in stable condition. In the early hours of the morning, prisoners were asked to sign a statement to vacate the responsibility of the authorities, but the prisoners refused to do this.
As soon as the death of Abbas Malallah was announced in Jau Prison, cries and protests came from inside the buildings of the prison, where the prisoners expressed their anger at the grave neglect suffered by their colleague. These inmates fear for their own health and safety, especially with the outbreak of COVID-19 within the prison. Issa complained of overcrowding in the cells, noting that, frequently, 17 prisoners share a cell for 10 people, which effectively means that seven prisoners must sleep on the ground.
Protests in Bahrain’s Streets Demanding the Release of Political Prisoners
As a response to the painful news about the death of Abbas Malallah, demonstrations that began on March 28 continued across various regions of Bahrain. Families took to the streets to demand the release of loved ones who are imprisoned, expressing their fear of treatment similar to Abbas’ and mistreatment of the spread of COVID-19 amongst the prison population. They also cited concerns about the prison administration’s record of depriving prisoners of their right to medical treatment for individuals with chronic diseases, infectious diseases, and injuries caused by torture. Parents of prisoners made demands to know where their imprisoned children are and how to contact them.
ADHRB received news of peaceful demonstrations in some 24 areas of Bahrain, where 48 demonstrations were recorded on April 2 alone. Demonstrations took the form of daily marches, and they were remarkable for the role of women in leading these events. Demonstrators were keen to follow precautionary measures for COVID-19. However, on April 6, about a dozen family members of prisoners were summoned for questioning at Hamad City Police Station 17.
A number of these individuals have now been arrested and will appear before the public prosecutor’s office, including Anwar and Yasser Daqaq, the brothers of Mohammed Daqaq, a prisoner suffering from sickle cell anemia. Ali Muhanna, the father of prisoner Hussein Muhanna, was also summoned. He had been expressing concern for his son’s denial of contact with his family after telling his father that he was hungry because the administration had not provided them with their meals. On April 7, Ali Muhanna said in a video that he had been summoned back to the police station––his second summons in less than 24 hours––and that the father of martyr Sayed Hashem had been summoned to the same station for unknown reasons. On April 7, the public prosecutor’s office also decided to arrest the three brothers of prisoner Mohammed Hamid al-Daqaq for a week, pending investigation.
National Committee Conference: A Failed Attempt to Polish the Image of the Authorities
On April 4, 2021, just two days before Malallah’s death, the National Task Force against COVID-19 held a press conference during which the Director of Public Security, Tarek Al-Hassan, discussed the developments of COVID-19 in Bahrain. With regard to the outbreak at Jau Prison, he reiterated the same points previously adopted by other government agencies in their statements, and provided no new information on the situation. Al-Hassan said the protocol adopted by the Jau Prison Administration follows international standards:any new inmate is placed in quarantine under the Ministry of Health before he enters prison. He also noted that the list of inmates being considered for alternative sentencing is being drafted, and that 126 prisoners could potentially be released under this scheme.
Many prisoners and their families reject alternative punishments, however, because they still constitute punishment for individuals who have been unjustly convicted and involve constant surveillance. This is why the demands of protesting families included calling for the unconditional release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.
Just as a representative of the Interior Ministry stated on March 31, Al-Hassan also warned against politicizing the outbreak. He singled out individuals and groups working for non-national agendas, thereby not only rejecting the fair and just demands made by protesters, but by distorting the nature of them. Al-Hassan also noted that the administration schedules visits to vaccinated guests with their vaccinated family members, however these visits are made from behind the glass and using audio speakers. Furthermore, visitors are only allowed 5 minutes for these visits. Therefore, these visits are more like video communications, which is not sufficient for family members or prisoners.
Prisoners in Jau Prison further denounced the entry and tour of a media crew of Bahrain Television into the prison. This media crew entered cells and conducted interviews; prisoners were simultaneously prevented from visiting medical clinics for treatment, on the grounds that there were precautionary measures to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19.
The information received by ADHRB has been given by prisoners who recovered from COVID-19 and were therefore allowed to speak to their family members. None of the assurances by Al-Hassan correspond to the information received from prisoners within the system.
Continued Lack of Transparency from Bahraini Authorities on Names and Numbers of Prisoners Infected with COVID-19
Last week, the number of active cases of COVID-19 in Jau Prison increased, with the current number of confirmed cases among prisoners of conscience reaching 84. Despite the steady increase, authorities continued to block access to information about the outbreak within the prison, and failed to provide any updates on the official number of active cases. The only figures disclosed were the first three cases recorded on March 23. The authorities also have not disclosed details of the treatment provided to prisoners, the place of isolation or quarantine, and the names of infected individuals; prisoners are also not allowed to communicate with their family members. The lack of access to information is particularly disturbing given the news ADHRB received about the transfer of prisoners, such as Sheikh Hassan Issa, with severe symptoms to Salmaniya Hospital..
ADHRB is also concerned by the information received from prisoners that those whose cases have become critical will be moved into isolation in Building 18, a newly constructed building commonly used for solitary confinement. One of the prisoners held in Building 18 told his family that he was barely conscious because of the severity of his symptoms, but he was finally transferred out after receiving a negative test; he was able to contact them after testing negative. Another prisoner stated that, while suffering the most severe symptoms, he had been placed in solitary confinement in Building 18 and had not received any medical treatment; he was transferred out only after receiving a negative test result.
ADHRB finally has serious concerns about the fact that new prisoners are still being added to Jau Prison during the outbreak, despite it already being three times over its maximum capacity.
Call for Medical Care and the Release of Political Prisoners
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain calls on the Bahraini authorities to open an investigation into the causes of the death of prisoner Abbas Malallah. ADHRB further emphasizes the need for the release of political prisoners, especially the elderly, who suffer from health complications that could be exacerbated by the Coronavirus. At the very least, ADHRB calls for the provision of necessary and appropriate medical care for all prisoners, in addition to ensuring that prisons meet the minimum standards of healthcare required, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, ADHRB calls on official and human rights institutions to be transparent about the information related to the COVID outbreak within prisons. This is crucial for family and friends of prisoners. All of these measures are requests for basic human rights and human decency.