Hunger Striker Exposes Systematic Denial of Religious Freedom in Bahrain’s Prison

9 October 2019 –  Political Prisoner Ali AlHajee wrote a letter exposing the dire conditions of Bahrain’s Jau prison and the numerous violations prisoners have been facing pertaining to the denial of religious freedom. The letter, which is addressed to several bodies focusing on the promotion and protection of religious freedom, describes the deteriorating conditions faced by AlHajee and other political prisoners like him.

Prison authorities, says AlHajee, discriminate against the Shia, to which the majority of the prison population belongs. This is done by confiscating and banning religious books, prohibiting inmates from practising rituals, punishing those who attempt to commemorate religious festivals, and spewing derogatory jokes about Shia beliefs. These restrictions and actions exacerbate during the month of Muharram, the most important religious festival for the Shia community. 

The letter ends by calling on the bodies to act on behalf of AlHajee and all other political prisoners, and urging the Bahraini authorities to respect their international human rights obligations on the matter.

Driven by the denial of medical treatment, unobstructed family visitations and the barriers implemented that stop him from practising his religion, AlHajee joined an open hunger strike on 1 September; this was initially launched by approximately 600 other political prisoners on 15 August 2019. Human Rights Watch and BIRD recently published a report exposing the systematic denial of adequate healthcare to political prisoners.  

Full Letter Below

8 October 2019


My name is Ali AlHajee, and I am writing to provide information on the dire conditions of Bahrain’s Jau prison and the numerous violations prisoners have been facing since 2011.

While Bahrain has long experienced restrictions to freedom of expression and religion, in 2017 the situation began to deteriorate dramatically, particularly with regards to the practice of Shia religious beliefs and rituals. Despite constituting the majority of the population in the country and the Bahraini prisons, the Shia sect is subjected to shocking disrespect and discrimination. Sectarian discrimination is also indicated by absence of any Shia employed as police officers or prison guards, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims, with a small minority of non-Muslims.

Since 2017, the prison administration has been implementing gradual restrictions resulting in a pattern of systematic discrimination. At first, they prohibited Shia prisoners from practising their daily religious rituals in the allocated locations. Soon after, they began to confiscate and ban religious texts used for religious practices and finally prohibited inmates from practising these religious rituals even inside their cells and now punish any inmate who commemorates any religious festival.

These regulations clearly discriminate against the Shia and appear to be politically motivated, as prisoners from other faiths and sects are not subject to such restrictions. Last December, the prison provided Christians with a special place to celebrate Christmas and facilitated the entry of priests to ensure the full observation of the requisite religious rites.

The religious restrictions exacerbate during Muharram, the most important religious festival for the Shia community. During this time, prison authorities confiscate all our religious books related to prayers and doctrine, ban the use of sacred stones which we use during prayers and humiliate us with offensive jokes about our beliefs.

I have personally suffered from several administrative sanctions because of my religious practices. Prison guards have searched my room during my commemoration of religious occasions and have confiscated requisite texts. They also deprived me of free time outside the cell and phone calls for four days. Several other inmates were physically abused, placed in solitary confinement and banned from having family visits because of their observation of daily religious practices.

This year, we were only permitted a limited time to commemorate some religious ceremonies during Muharram, namely the ten Ashura days. Restrictions on religious practices continue, particularly with regards to group prayers and Azaa (Shia mourning practice), as well as the prohibition from using allotted places and the necessary materials needed for such practices. Despite the importance placed by the Shia faith on commemorating Ashura as a group, we were only permitted to celebrate with cellmates on our ward.

In addition, our confiscated books have not been returned to us and we are not allowed to receive new books from outside the prison, although they are not prohibited in the country. Although they sporadically allow us to practise religious rites, prisons are overcrowded and the environment is not adequate.

I have been on a hunger strike since 1 September to protest the deterioration of prison conditions, the use of physical and psychological ill-treatment and the policy of collective punishment implemented by the administration. I have been denied medical care, prevented from seeing my family since February 2017 and have not been provided an adequate environment in which to practise my religious beliefs.

I hope that you can act on my behalf and urge the Bahraini authorities to respect their international human rights obligations on the matter.

Ali Husain AlHajee,
Jau Prison

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