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Starving for the rights of Bahrain's prisoners

Bahrain
Prisons
Ali Mushaima, Bahraini activist on hunger strike. Photo by Alisdare Hickson (CC 2.0). 

‘My empty stomach is stronger than the weak and cowardly regime,’ says Ali Mushaima, a Bahraini activist now on his 37th day of a hunger strike.

‘Physically I feel tired. It’s not just the lack of food. It’s also the impact of sleeping on the street.’

We’re talking on fold-up chairs outside the Bahraini embassy in the heart of Knightsbridge, London. This is where Ali has been living since the start of August. He is protesting against the treatment of his father, Hassan Mushaima, in Jau Prison Bahrain.

His father was arrested in 2012 for organizing against the Bahraini dictatorship during the Arab Spring uprising. While in prison, Hassan has been beaten, tortured and degraded. He suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes, gout, and a urinary tract infection, as well as being a former lymphoma cancer patient. Despite his medical history, Human Rights Watch says that he has had medical care withheld.

Hassan’s case has also been taken up by Amnesty International. ‘That anyone can bring themselves to treat people with such cruelty is unbelievable,’ says Lynn Maalouf, the organization’s Middle East Research Director. ‘[He] should not have been arrested, tried or imprisoned in the first place... [He] must be released immediately and unconditionally.’

Ali’s father isn’t the only member of his family that has suffered at the hands of the regime. His cousin, Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, was the first person killed by Bahrain’s riot police in the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in 2011. Another relative, Sami Mushaima, was executed by a firing squad last year. The UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, Agnes Callamard, condemned his execution, citing torture, an unfair trial and flimsy evidence.

In 2011 Ali had his Bahraini citizenship revoked in absentia as part of the crackdown. He is resident in the UK, but he is stateless. If he returns home to Bahrain he will be arrested. Since arriving in London in 2006 he has worked with other Bahraini activists and human rights campaigners to expose the appalling abuses that are taking place.

The decision to go on hunger strike wasn’t an easy one, but Ali didn’t feel that he had any option. ‘The Bahraini community in this country has tried everything. We have organized demonstrations, we have worked through the official channels. But it changed nothing. I had to take an action that they would notice,’he says.

Despite the lengths Ali has gone to, his demands are very simple: ‘I want him to receive medical care. I want him to be allowed family visits and I want him to have access to his books and personal belongings. These are basic rights that should be given to every prisoner.’

'My empty stomach is stronger than the weak and cowardly regime.' Photo by Alisdare Hickson (CC 2.0). 

The strike has taken an obvious physical toll. Ali has lost 14 kilograms since he began and has suffered from low blood-sugar and dizzy spells. Last week he was taken to St Thomas’s hospital, following concerns from friends and activists. Whilst he was recovering, his space and his belongings were guarded by a supporter. That night almost 100 people took part in a vigil for him.

Ali returned 24 hours later. ‘I was stabilized in hospital. I got the healthcare I needed. The prisoners in Bahrain do not have that right. I want people who can see me to imagine how my father and other human rights defenders are feeling,’ he says.

Despite the repression in Bahrain, the UK government has continued to arm and support the Bahraini military, with over £80 million (USD$103 million) worth of arms having been licensed since the uprising. It also provides military and police training.

Over the last six years, Whitehall and Downing Street have provided £5 million (USD$6.5 million) worth of assistance to Bahrain in support of its ‘reform programme.’ In theory this was established to build effective institutions, strengthen the rule of law, and ensure police and justice reform. In reality it has provided a figleaf of legitimacy to a system that continues to punish opponents and quash dissent.

One thing Ali has been grateful for is the support he has received. People have come from all over London to show their solidarity and support for his demands. ‘When I began my protest I brought two books. I haven’t even managed to finish the first one. I’ve had so many visitors.’ As we are wrapping up the interview, a supporter arrives to help prepare for a protest happening later that afternoon.

The stakes could not be higher. A lot of people are worried about Ali, and none of them want to see him going back to hospital. ‘They could end this tomorrow,’ he says while looking at the embassy.

‘They would rather keep me sleeping on the streets than agree to very basic demands. What I am calling for is rights that all prisoners should have.’

There is a petition in support of Ali’s demands.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT on Twitter. Their handle is: @CAATuk

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