The Formula One track, above, in Bahrain is a source of national pride but a short drive from the spectacle of race day is the overcrowded Jaw Prison. (AFP/Tom Gandolfini)

Glitz of Formula One must not divert attention from Bahrain's jailed journalists

By Jason Stern/CPJ Middle East and North Africa Research Associate on April 16, 2015 1:59 PM ET

When the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) hosted Formula One for the first time in 2004, it was nearly a false start for the $150 million facility. Drivers told the BBC they feared desert sand would damage their racecars. So track employees began a perpetual fight against nature, even spraying glue over the surrounding desert in the hope of keeping it at bay.

Eleven years later, the sand is still blowing in Bahrain, but it is not the only irritant the government must sweep away as it tries to impress the international community. With the spectacle of this week's 2015 Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix, it could be easy to forget that just a short drive from the race track is Jaw Prison, home to at least five journalists and bloggers imprisoned for their work.

Bahrain has always been clear about why it hosts Formula One. The Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company, which owns the race track, says it is a way to "enhance the international profile of Bahrain" and form "the backbone" of the country's economic vision for growth and diversification. In 2013, the head of the government board in charge of enacting that vision claimed the Formula One race "generates a direct economic impact of US$295 million and supports 3,000 jobs."

But the Formula One race is not just about the money; it's about the show the government can put on for the international stage. And it is quite the show. Alongside the race, Bahrain hosts weeks of Formula One-related events, including a race around Bahrain in Jaguar cars, stunt shows, and concerts, including a headline performance by American rapper Pitbull.

BIC chief executive Sheikh Salman bin Al-Khalifa told the local Gulf Daily News one of the biggest challenges this year has been producing enough fake snow for a ski ramp being built as part of the planned "off track" entertainment.

For the journalists and political prisoners in Jaw Prison, just a 35-minute drive away, such concerns must seem frivolous.

Conditions inside the prison have been criticized not only by local and international human rights groups, but official Bahraini institutions as well. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was approved by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, found that prisoners held in Jaw during the 2011 crackdown against massive pro-democracy protests were, in some cases, beaten and denied access to their families and legal representation. The 2011 crackdown, which included the arrest of many BIC employees, forced Formula One organizers to cancel the race that year. In response to the commission's report, the Ministry of Interior, which runs Jaw Prison, established an ombudsman to investigate claims of police abuse. In its 2013-2014 report, it found Jaw was 33 percent over its 1,201-prisoner capacity and called for "urgent action to address the problem" of overcrowding.

It is not clear how many prisoners are currently housed in Jaw. The Ministry of Interior and the ombudsman office did not respond to CPJ requests for comment. But since the publication of the ombudsman report, arrests have continued and many defendants have been found guilty and lost their appeals, according to news reports.

Journalists and other political prisoners serve their sentences alongside common criminals, all of them enduring the cramped, unhygienic conditions inside the prison, according to local rights groups.

The infant son of Ahmed Humaidan is surrounded by fliers at a rally for the jailed journalist in 2014. The photographer is one of at least five journalists held in Jaw Prison. (AP/Hasan Jamali)

Take for example two freelance photojournalists who have exhausted all their appeals on charges related to their work. Ahmed Humaidan, arrested in December 2012, is currently serving a 10-year sentence on charges of participating in an attack on a police station. Humaidan was at the station to document the attack as part of his coverage of unrest in the country, according to news reports. And then there's Hussein Hubail, who is serving a five-year sentence on charges of inciting protests in 2013. Someone familiar with his situation, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told me this month that Hubail's health has deteriorated and he has been denied adequate medical care for his heart condition.

For years, human rights defenders working in Bahrain have described Jaw Prison to me as a pressure cooker. They pointed to the many young prisoners facing long sentences, sometimes for peaceful dissent, other times for responding to police brutality with petrol bombs and stones. The pressure cooker finally exploded last month.

A family's protest at being denied visitation rights on March 10 quickly escalated into widespread unrest, according to news reports. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported that at least 500 detainees, as well as several police officers, were injured when police used tear gas, batons, and shotgun pellets to quell the uprising. The report cited unnamed eyewitnesses who said they watched as police systematically beat and stomped bound inmates in the prison's courtyard and hallways. Pictures posted on social media, purportedly taken by prisoners' contraband cell phones, claim to show tear gas suffocating wards and the bruised backs of prisoners beaten by the guards. For weeks after the riot, many families, including Humaidan's, were not able to contact imprisoned relatives to ensure their safety, according to Human Rights Watch.

A statement from the ombudsman, released in March, said that after the riot some inmates "have had their telephone or visitation privileges temporarily suspended." The statement added that the office had interviewed 124 inmates about conditions in the prison, of which 15 had filed complaints.

Bahrain Press Association head Adel Marzouk told me he remains "very worried for the safety and health of the journalists and photographers inside Jaw Prison." Human rights groups and news reports have said the ill treatment of prisoners continues.

Amid the violence, Bahrain's leading human rights defender and Bahrain Center for Human Rights founder Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja completed a three-week hunger strike to protest prison conditions. Alongside demands for an end to arbitrary arrests and for proper investigations into torture, Al-Khawaja made more simple demands such as access to magazines, radios, and additional newspapers. He is currently serving a life sentence in a separate ward from the general population and, like many others in Jaw, his appeals process has been exhausted, according to local human rights groups.

Al-Khawaja's demands are a world away from the Formula One concerns of fake snow, but if the government chooses to ignore them, it does so at its own peril. As Brian Dooley of Human Rights First wrote last week for Huffington Post: "If Bahrain wants to fix its prison problem properly, it will stop trying to hide the truth about what's happened, improve conditions, and release all those prisoners who shouldn't be in jail in the first place."

Nabeel Rajab arrives for an appeal hearing in February. The president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights was arrested after writing an article about the prison riot. (Reuters/Hamad Mohammed)

For now the government seems determined to stay on its current path. On April 2, the government arrested Bahrain Center for Human Rights President Nabeel Rajab and charged him for "insulting a statutory body" and "spreading rumors during wartime," according to a joint statement signed by the center and 16 other organizations. The charges relate to his reporting on civilian deaths in the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, which Bahrain supports and, of all things, a series of tweets and a Huffington Post article he wrote about conditions inside Jaw Prison after last month's violence. In the article, Rajab writes, "Jaw is where civilisation [sic] ends in Bahrain, and it is where civilised manners die, and civilised people [are] broken."

But in the civilized world of Formula One, the government continues to endlessly sweep the sand off the race track, hoping the country doesn't swerve out of control and crash.

  • Support jailed journalists in Bahrain and other countries by joining CPJ's "Press Uncuffed" campaign.

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