Bahrain’s biggest protest in years has emerged from the catacombs of its repressive system. In early August, hundreds of political prisoners punished for demanding democracy started a hunger strike to demand improvements in inhumane prison conditions. Their families again took to the streets to call for their release, and international civil society backed their demands. But democratic states that claim their foreign policy is guided by democracy and human rights are silent, prioritising their security alliance with the regime. It’s high time the USA, the UK and other democratic states use the many levers at their disposal to urge freedom for political prisoners and democratic reform in Bahrain.

After lengthy preparations, Maryam al-Khawaja’s journey home ended before it had even begun. British Airways staff stopped her boarding her flight at the request of Bahraini immigration authorities. Maryam was no regular passenger: her father is veteran human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, in jail in Bahrain for 12 years and counting.

Abdulhadi was sentenced to life in prison on bogus terrorism charges for his role in 2011 protests for democracy, part of the regional wave of mobilisations commonly called the ‘Arab Spring’. His health, weakened due to the denial of medical care, had further declined as he joined other political prisoners in a hunger strike demanding improvements in prison conditions.

Emerging from the unlikeliest place – a prison designed to break wills and destroy the desire for freedom – this hunger strike has become the biggest organised protest Bahrain has seen in years.

Maryam and her father are dual Danish-Bahraini citizens, and Maryam has lived in exile in Copenhagen since 2014 after receiving a one-year sentence in Bahrain. She intended to travel in the company of three people who’d try to stop the Bahraini authorities detaining her on arrival: Amnesty International’s secretary general and former United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, Action Aid-Denmark’s secretary general, Tim Whyte, and Olive Moore, interim director of Front Line Defenders, an organisation her father used to work for.

Maryam has four judicial cases pending in Bahrain but was ready to spend years in prison if this was what it took to save her father’s life. This is far from Abdulhadi’s first hunger strike, but his family warns that his fragile health means it could be his last. In denying Maryam the chance to see her father, the Bahraini regime has reacted as those who rule by fear often do: in fear of those who aren’t afraid of them.

A prison state

Bahrain was the only Gulf monarchy that saw serious unrest during the 2011 wave of protests. The government cracked down severely. Barely three days after protests started, on 17 February 2011, security forces killed several protesters as they violently cleared the main protest site.

Protests were again violently broken up a month later with the decisive help of forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The government declared martial law and arrested scores of protesters, activists and opposition leaders. It held mass trials and stripped hundreds of their citizenship. It sentenced 51 people to death and has so far executed six, while 26 wait on death row having exhausted their appeals. Most were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained through torture.

In protest at the 2011 repression, opposition members of parliament resigned and the opposition boycotted the subsequent, largely ceremonial election held in 2014. The government then moved to suppress all political opposition: it dissolved parties on false terrorism charges and issued the decree known as the ‘political isolation law’, which banned members of dissolved opposition parties standing for election. This law was also used to restrict the ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to operate.

What is at the core of this problem is the absence of civic space in Bahrain.


Many of those arrested in the 2011 protests and subsequent crackdown remain behind bars. According to estimates from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, over the past decade the government has arrested almost 15,000 people for their political views, and between 1,200 and 1,400 remain behind bars, mostly in Jau prison in Manama, the capital. Abdulhadi is therefore one of many. With 3,800 of its 1.5 million population in prison, Bahrain has one of the Middle East’s highest per capita incarceration rates.

Desperate measures

On 7 August, Jau’s political prisoners – housed in separate blocks from other inmates and subjected to particularly harsh conditions – went on hunger strike. Their demands include an end to solitary confinement, more time outside cells – currently they’re only allowed out for an hour a day, permission to hold prayers in congregation, amended visitation rules and access to adequate medical care and education. Over the following weeks the numbers taking part grew to more than 800. Their families took to the streets to demand their release.

The government denies it has political prisoners – officially, those in jail haven’t been convicted for voicing dissent but for committing criminal and terrorist acts – and disputes the number of hunger strikers: after initially denying there were any, it eventually recognised around 120.

On 31 August, the political prisoners extended their protest after rejecting the government’s measly offer to double outdoor time to two hours a day, increase the length of family visits and review rates for phone calls.

On 11 September, a two-week suspension of the strike was announced to allow the government to fulfil promises to improve conditions, including ending isolation for some prisoners. It seemed clear the government had shifted position to avoid embarrassment as Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa travelled on an official visit to meet US President Joe Biden.

Abdulhadi, however, soon resumed his hunger strike after being denied access to a scheduled medical appointment, only to suspend it a few days later when he was promised improvements in conditions, including a cardiologist appointment. But the next day it became apparent that these were all lies, and he resumed his hunger strike. It felt, as Maryam put it, ‘like psychological warfare and an attempt to kill solidarity’.

Voices from the frontline

Jawad Fairooz is a former Bahraini parliamentarian, a member of the dissolved opposition party Al-Wefaq and the founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights. He was detained and tortured in 2011 and in 2012 stripped of his citizenship.


What is at the core of this problem is the absence of civic space in Bahrain. If there was space for independent civil society, then CSOs would have effectively alerted the authorities to prison conditions and they could have addressed the situation. An independent civic space makes it possible to find a balance in government conduct.

But Bahrain has closed civic space. Government officials decide which CSOs can be registered and who can stand for their boards. They prevent people from engaging in public life who have no criminal records or public complaints but rather perhaps a past association with a political movement or party that was unfairly banned years ago.

The Bahraini constitution provides for freedoms and safeguards similar to many other states, but the reality is that the government continues to carry out arbitrary arrests and stage unfair trials for acts that are not internationally recognised as crimes. The authorities torture detainees and use the death penalty, despite domestic opposition and international condemnation. They have stripped hundreds, including myself, of citizenship, depriving us of even the right to have rights in our homeland. They use the digital space to monitor and punish dissent and to foment religious and sectarian strife.

Activists linked with Salam DHR cannot, in effect, exercise their right to peaceful assembly, let alone openly campaign for freedoms of association and expression, the release of prisoners unfairly tried and imprisoned or a moratorium on the death penalty. They would risk arrest if they did that.

International human rights organisations, UN treaty bodies and Special Procedures and partner states, for instance in the context of the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process of Bahrain, have all joined us in calling on the government of Bahrain to abide by its international human rights obligations, starting with the basic step of letting people have a voice in public life.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Jawad. Read the full interview here.

International solidarity – and its absence

In her attempt to go back to Bahrain, Maryam received strong international solidarity and support. Several Bahraini, regional and international civil CSOs backed a joint letter urging European Union authorities to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all Bahrain’s political prisoners. A similar letter was sent to the UK government.

In late 2022, backlash from human rights organisations forced Bahrain to withdraw its candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. And earlier this year, during the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global assembly in Bahrain, which the ruling regime sought to use for whitewashing purposes, a Danish member of parliament tweeted a photo of himself standing outside Jau prison and calling for Abdulhadi’s release. Danish and Norwegian parliamentarians participating in the conference also called on Bahrain to release him and send him to Denmark for medical treatment. Politicians from other countries echoed their call.

But while Bahrain’s political prisoners have many allies, some powerful voices aren’t siding with them.

As a small country, Bahrain relies heavily on its foreign alliances, with repressive autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE but also with democratic states, notably the UK and the USA. Its Saudi and Emirati allies don’t see anything wrong in the Bahraini regime using the same tactics they deploy to stifle dissent. But the UK and USA make an active choice not to see the human rights violations they call out when they happen elsewhere. They won’t admit that they value what they define as stability and security above all else.

Following Bahrain’s independence in 1971, the UK has continued to back the institutions it established as the former colonial power – and has pretended to see progress towards democratic reform where there hasn’t been any.

In July, Bahrain’s Crown Prince made an official visit to the UK, where he met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and signed a new ‘Strategic Investment and Collaboration Partnership’ between the two countries. As hailed in the UK government’s press release, this included bilateral agreements worth billions, including a US$1 billion investment deal in the UK. The two leaders celebrated their joint efforts in countering ‘Iran’s destabilising regional activity’ and, barely a month before the start of the hunger strike, Sunak welcomed ‘progress on domestic reforms in Bahrain, particularly in relation to the judiciary and legal process’.

For the USA, Bahrain has been a ‘major non-NATO ally‘ since 2002 and a ‘major security partner’ since 2021. Bahrain was the first state in the region to be accorded major non-NATO ally status, the first to host a major US military base and the first, in 2006, to sign a free trade agreement with the USA. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, one of seven around the world, is stationed there, and the country also hosts the headquarters of the US Naval Forces Central Command.

The Bahraini regime has received US assistance to equip and train its defence and security forces – it was the first Gulf country to receive F-16s in the 1990s – and supported US efforts in Afghanistan and participated in several US-led military coalitions, including the ‘Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’.

On 13 September, with the hunger strike temporarily suspended, the Crown Prince visited Washington DC and signed a ‘Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement’ meant to scale up military and economic cooperation with the USA.

Only in the last paragraph of its pages-long announcement, meticulously detailed in every other respect, did the White House briefly acknowledge that, human rights being ‘an integral part of the President’s National Security Strategy’, its promotion was ‘an important topic of discussion during the Crown Prince-Prime Minister’s visit’. Nothing was said about the content or outcome of those alleged conversations. According to a former US ambassador to Bahrain, Bahrain was rewarded for being a ‘steadfast, reliable ally’ that is ‘100 percent aligned with Washington’ and, unlike some of its neighbours, hasn’t ‘made a show of hedging its bets by cozying up to China or striking deals with Russia’.

The USA has been repeatedly chastised for a ‘selective defence of democracy‘, its swift condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine contrasting with its indifference to Bahrain’s repression of its democracy movement, aided by two repressive foreign powers. President Biden promised a foreign policy centred around human rights, but that rings hollow in Bahrain. It’s high time the USA, the UK and other democratic states use the many levers at their disposal to urge the Bahraini government to free its thousands of political prisoners, allow the voicing of dissent and move towards real democratic reform.


  • Democratic states must leverage ties with Bahrain to urge its authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners.
  • The Bahraini government must release all political prisoners, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and ensure they receive the medical care they request and consent to.
  • The Bahraini government must allow civil society organisations to operate without constraints.

Cover photo by Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images