‘This isn’t humanity’: Inside the Bahraini women’s prison overseen by officials trained with UK money

Maya Oppenheim
Projection of Hajar Mansoor with her son Sayed Nazar. The family is being targeted by Bahrain authorities in retribution for the human rights work of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei: Alisdare Hickson

“They are closing in on me and suffocating me,” says Hajer Mansoor. “This isn’t humanity.”

The 51-year-old has been jailed in Isa Town, a notorious Bahraini prison condemned by the United Nations for its degrading treatment and poor conditions, for almost three years.

In Isa Town, she says she is kept in her cell for almost 24 hours a day, with no drinking water outside of mealtimes. In Isa Town, she says guards refused for months to tell her whether the results of a breast scan showed if she had cancer. In Isa Town, the officials in charge of overseeing the conditions have been trained using millions in British taxpayers’ money, despite allegations that they have covered up torture and human-rights abuses.

It is cases like Ms Mansoor’s that have led activists to call for the UK funding to end.

The only detention facility for women in Bahrain, Isa Town has a smooth, white concrete exterior. Within its walls, prisoners report unhygienic living conditions and insect-ridden food.

For three weeks in April last year, female inmates were blocked from going to the prison shop where they were able to buy hygiene products, a report by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) found.

Human rights groups including the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention allege Ms Mansoor was subjected to an unfair trial on trumped-up charges because of the activism of her exiled son-in-law, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei.

“This is completely inhumane treatment,” the mother of five says. “I’m inside the room for almost 24 hours. If I ever leave my room, an officer is always behind me step by step and doesn’t leave me alone.

“They lock me in the room almost all day with absolutely nothing to keep myself busy. I can’t receive visits from my children. I’m forbidden from speaking to other Bahraini inmates.”

When she found the lump in her breast in August 2018, she says prison officers initially refused to take her to hospital, and it was only after an appeal by Amnesty International that she was able to have tests including a mammogram. Ms Mansoor was told the lump was not cancerous but, she says, they would not give her a copy of the results, then authorities refused to give her follow-up treatment for tests despite a doctor’s recommendation.

Since 2012, £6.5m of British taxpayers’ money has been spent on training Bahraini public institutions, including the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman and Special Investigation Unit, which have been condemned by human rights organisations for covering up a slew of torture allegations, including the case of Ms Mansoor, as well as unlawful executions.

Bahrain is one of the UK’s longest-standing allies in the Gulf despite being “one of the Middle East’s most repressive states” according to US NGO Freedom House.

The Foreign Office says it monitors the situation closely, and has raised Ms Mansoor’s case with the Bahraini government.

Among those calling for further action to be taken is women’s activist Medina Ali, who was released at the end of last year after more than two years in Isa Town, where she shared a cell with Ms Mansoor.

Speaking to The Independent in her first interview since leaving prison, Ms Ali says she suffered “extremely harsh treatment” throughout her sentence. Guards, led by the major in charge of the facility, also physically assaulted both her and fellow cellmate, Ms Mansoor, in September 2018, she says.

“After being denied access to take part in religious rituals, we were punished and beaten,” Ms Ali says. “The head of the prison punched my back. The pain remained for several days. I was in shock and pain. For unrelated reasons, I had uterine bleeding that lasted for over a month and despite repeated requests to be seen by a doctor or specialist doctor, I was denied. I lived with my own suffering and misery.

“There was one incident where I was strip-searched following a visit by my family. I was asked to take all my clothes off. It was very humiliating. Prison was an extremely painful experience. They also placed a glass barrier for family visits, which was very difficult because I have a child – a boy who is eight years old. I was often in my cell for 23 or 22 hours a day.”

Medina Ali, a former inmate at the Bahraini prison

She says she was also barred from speaking to other prisoners and blocked from having relatives visit her at various points during her time in jail.

Ms Ali, who had taken part in peaceful protests calling for equal rights and democratic change in Bahrain, had been driving to work on the day she was taken to Isa Town prison back in 2017.

She says: “It was an abduction because they were wearing civilian clothes. There were four men. They all had their guns raised. They blindfolded me and took me to a horse stable. There was a room nearby where interrogation began. It was very aggressive and threatening. I was threatened with rape and they threatened to rape my mother and younger sister.

“They hit me all over my body. They took my head and started knocking it against the wall until I sustained serious bruises. The mark from this incident is still there. You can feel it when you touch my forehead.”

Both the cases of Ms Mansoor and Ms Ali have been raised by groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, on a number of occasions.

Last month, the UN special procedures raised serious concerns about the situation in Bahrain’s prisons and the treatment of Ms Mansoor and Ms Ali, in a letter signed by eight UN experts.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), argues Ms Mansoor continues to “languish in arbitrary detention” being “subject to treatment which may amount to torture”.

Ms Mansoor was left with bruises all over her body and hospitalised after being assaulted by prison guards in September 2018. The assault took place just days after her son-in-law briefed MPs in the UK about the mistreatment of female prisoners in Bahrain.

Amnesty International has previously urged the authorities at Isa Town and all other detention facilities in Bahrain to follow international human rights law in how they treat detainees and prisoners.

A spokesperson for the Bahraini embassy in London says the allegations of mistreatment against Ms Mansoor and Ms Ali have been investigated by Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior ombudsman and found to be without substance. They say Ms Mansoor was convicted of planting fake explosive devices.

The representative says: “It is also wrong to characterise the Kingdom of Bahrain as ‘repressive’ or to claim that it practises or tolerates the mistreatment or torture of those in custody. In reality, no person is detained or prosecuted in the Kingdom of Bahrain for peaceful freedom of expression, nor for legitimate peaceful activism.

“There has been no denial of (health) treatment ... In reality, Ms Mansoor is receiving all necessary consultations, scans, treatment and follow-up as guaranteed by law.”

While the Bahraini government says prisoners are allowed out of their cells for eight hours a day, a government organisation that oversees human rights in the country – the National Institute for Human Rights Bahrain – has previously said female prisoners are allowed out of cells for two hours each day.

Britain has a lengthy history of colonial intervention in Bahrain – as well as still having naval facilities in the country, which has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family for more than two centuries. The UK has licensed £105m worth of arms to Bahrain since the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprising started in February 2011, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

Ms Ali, who constantly fears being recalled to prison and is currently banned from travelling outside of Bahrain, hit out at Britain’s close relationship with Bahrain.

“It is upsetting for me to know the training Britain gives to Bahrain is still ongoing,” she says. “I would like to see Britain stop its training to Bahrain because we are the victims. The people are the ones who suffer the most from abuse by the Bahraini government. Britain is a hypocrite.”

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