On May 4, 2021, Belgian Parliamentarians Samuel Cogolati and Fançois de Smet jointly posed questions regarding the situation in Bahraini prisons and the outbreak of COVID-19 in Bahraini prisons. This follows the written questions posed by Member of Parliament Sabine de Bethune, on May 3, 2021.
Written Questions Posed by MP Sabine de Bethune
MP submitted four written questions requesting to know whether Belgium has urged the Bahraini authorities to: end all forms of violence and intimidation against human rights defenders and political activists; reintroduce the moratorium on the death penalty; request the immediate and unconditional release of activists detained on charges related to freedom of expression; provide prisoners access to medical care.
The justification for these written questions was categorized as “these constitutional freedoms concern both the federal and the community levels.”
The translated text of these questions is below. Translations were done by ADHRB staff.
Full Transcript of Written Questions Posed by MP Sabine de Bethune
On February 14, 2020, the Senate passed a resolution on human rights in Bahrain (Senate document, No. 7-142 / 2).
This resolution drew attention to the repression and prosecution campaigns against human rights defenders and political activists. In addition, explicit reference was also made to the death penalty, which was reintroduced in Bahrain.
During the past year, Bahrain has also denied access to the territory to several human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has been reported that the prisoners do not have access to the necessary care and this despite the COVID-19 outbreak in the prisons.
Protecting human rights and adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are essential.
Therefore the following questions:
1) Has Belgium urged the Bahraini authorities to end all forms of violence and intimidation against human rights defenders and political activists?
2) Has Belgium urged the Bahraini authorities to reintroduce the moratorium on the death penalty?
3) Has Belgium urged the Bahraini authorities to request the immediate and unconditional release of activists detained on charges related to their rights to freedom of expression?
4) Has Belgium urged the Bahraini authorities to provide prisoners access to medical care?
The original text of these written questions can be accessed here.
Oral Questions and Concerns Raised by MP Samuel Cogolati and MP François de Smet
MP Cogolati and MP de Smet posed their questions to Sophie Wilmès, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs. In their questions, they referenced an Amnesty International raising alarm about the deteriorating human rights situation in Jau Prison, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. In particular, they cite “overcrowded prisons, lack of preventative measures, and worrying living conditions.”
In Minister Wilmès’ response, she highlighted the words of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in discussing the particular vulnerabilities of political prisoners. She then discussed the release of prisoners via the Alternative Sentencing Program, her recent meeting with the Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs, and her hope that the circumstances surrounding the death of political prisoner Abbas MalAllah are brought to light by a government investigation. She also cited information that she had received from the Bahraini government, namely that prisoners had been tested and treated for COVID-19.
The original text of the oral questions and response can be accessed here.
Full Text of these Questions and Responses
The following are transcripts of the questions posed by the MPs, as well as the response of Minister Wilmès. They have been translated into English by the ADHRB staff.
Transcript of Oral Question Posed by MP François de Smet (in conjunction with MP Samuel Cogolati):
François De Smet (DéFi): Dear Madam Minister, we have seen in our prisons that it is sometimes difficult to control an outbreak within the prison population. However, everywhere in the world, prisoners have rights. The right to health and the right to life are in that regard guaranteed by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
According to a report from Amnesty International, the situation in Jau Prison in Bahrain is alarming and demonstrates, in a striking way, the lack of respect of the authorities in regards to the minimum standards of care and living conditions of the prisoners which have only worsened since the beginning of the epidemic.
The report highlights certain appalling observations: overcrowded prisons, lack of preventative measures, and worrying living conditions. Indeed, more than 10 prisoners can be imprisoned in a cell made for 8 people. In addition, detainees were not provided with masks nor from hygienic products, and the authorities never put in place any other preventative measures.
Certainly, the release of nearly 1500 prisoners in March 2020 due to COVID-19 was a good step in helping to resolve the issue of overcrowding in prison. Nevertheless, none of the unjustly detained 12 representatives of civil society has been released.
This flouting of rights which must be guaranteed by the government and prison authorities is worrying and calls for, according to us, the special attention of your services.
Consequently, Madam Minister:
What information do you have regarding the measures taken by the authorities to halt the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in Jau Prison in Bahrain? Based on your information, what are the living conditions of the detainees? Are their fundamental rights compromised?
Have you discussed this issue with the Bahraini ambassadors? Have you expressed your fears regarding the spread of COVID-19 and the living conditions of detainees?
What leverages can you use to help and/or support the authorities in order to guarantee the rights of the prisoners in Bahrain?
Response Provided Orally by Minister Sophie Wilmès
Sophie Wilmès: Dear Madam President, Mr. De Smet,
First of all I would like to highlight that we follow the developments up close through the Belgian Embassy in Kuwait and in Brussels.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on all governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention and in other closed institutions as part of the global effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. She highlighted the significant risks if the pandemic breaks out in prisons, as the population is highly vulnerable. She also called on governments to “release all the persons detained without adequate legal grounds, including political prisoners and others detained solely for expressing critical or dissenting opinions.”
In all bilateral contact that Belgium maintains with Bahrain both at the administrative and political levels, human rights are systematically put on the agenda. This includes conditions of detention, including access to health care in detention.
On 9 February, I had a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain. Human rights were obviously discussed. Since then, I have not had a meeting where the Bahraini ambassador was present.
I hope that Bahraini authorities will shed light on the circumstances of the death of Abbas Malallah in Jau prison. In this context, I refer to the concluding observations issued by the Human Right Council in Geneva to the Bahraini authorities, in particular on detention conditions and on the treatment of prisoners. Bahrain is bound by its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified in 2006.
In 2020, Bahraini authorities published a decree pardoning 901 prisoners. Furthermore, 585 prisoners are serving the rest of their prison sentence as part of rehabilitation programs and training. More than one year later, in April 2021, about 60 prisoners were released, including human rights activist Hussain Jawad Parweez.
These people are serving their sentences as part of the alternative sentencing program. The COVID-19 outbreak in the Jau prison sparked concern among inmates’ family members. On 28 March, the Bahraini government stated that all the inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 had been isolated and had received adequate treatment and that they were authorized to call their families.
MP de Smet’s Response to Minister Wilmès
François de Smet (DéFi): Dear Madam Minister, I thank you for your answer. Indeed, the reports that are transmitted to us from official institutions, but also Amnesty International for example, on the health conditions in Jau Prison are particularly alarming.
As with many other aspects, the Coronavirus pandemic highlights the difficult conditions in an exacerbated manner, not only in Belgium but also in many foreign countries, as is the case in Bahraini prisons.
ADHRB appreciates the concerns brought by each of these MPs and remains gravely concerned about the situation of political prisoners in Bahrain.