Bahrain pardoned 1584 unjustly jailed prisoners, yet 600 remain behind bars and on death row

The pardon of more than 1500 prisoners on April 8th by Bahraini king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa  has taken activists by surprise.

While officials portray the amnesty as a benevolent gesture aimed at fostering reconciliation and healing societal divisions, it can be more accurately viewed as a calculated manoeuvre to mitigate rising domestic tensions, international pressure, and improve Bahrain’s image on the global stage.

Central to the discussion are the individuals affected by this amnesty, particularly those labelled as political prisoners, such as activists, journalists, and advocates who had been detained for their dissenting views or involvement in pro-democracy movements.

Amongst the released, were several leading figures in human rights campaigning for which NGOs have been advocating for their freedom for more than a decade now. For example, Naji Fatteel, a Bahraini human rights defender imprisoned since 2013, was amongst those freed. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Bahraini human rights NGO Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR). Since then, he has been imprisoned, tortured, and the target of death threats during the Bahraini uprising starting in February 2011. Sources highlight the appalling conditions he endured during his imprisonment; he was tortured, subjected to electric shocks, deprived of food and sleep, losing consciousness, and needing hospital treatment twice.

It is important to remember that the released should not have been imprisoned in the first place, in fact, at least 65% of the 1584 people were convicted  solely on protest-related charges.

The timing of Bahrain’s prisoner amnesty coincides with ongoing wars and political tensions in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). Since the beginning of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza approximately six months ago, tensions have escalated within Bahrain due to its normalized relationship with Israel under the Abraham Accords. Despite not withdrawing from the normalization accord with Israel, many Bahraini citizens have vocally opposed the Abraham Accords and demonstrated solidarity with Palestinians. Bahrain’s involvement in “Operation Prosperity Guardian” and its support for US-UK bombings in Yemen, purportedly in response to Yemen attacks on Israeli-affiliated vessels, further exacerbates domestic discontent.

Against this backdrop of heightened tensions and growing opposition, the prisoner amnesty may be perceived as an attempt by the Bahraini government to alleviate domestic pressure and calm public dissent. By releasing prisoners, including human rights defenders, the government may seek to appease Bahrainis who are critical of its stance on the Arab–Israeli conflict conflict and its normalization of relations with Israel.

The release of the wrongfully convicted prisoners may be seen as a step towards reconciliation as well as a response to international pressure. Despite this move, however, human rights abuses persist in Bahrain, with hundreds still imprisoned or on death row. The fight for justice and human rights must continue, ensuring the release of all prisoners and addressing fundamental systemic issues.