Rare street protests have broken out in Bahrain as a mass hunger strike enters its fifth week, activists say, in a faint echo of the uprising that swept the Gulf kingdom starting in 2011, during the Arab Spring.
Inmates inside the country’s largest prison have been refusing meals since Aug. 7, protesting against what they and their relatives say are poor conditions, including systematic mistreatment, medical neglect and limited visitation rights.
The government has denied those allegations, arguing that conditions are in line with international standards. Officials have announced some concessions, including an increase in the time that prisoners can spend outside, yet the strike has lasted for nearly a month.
While the government says that only 116 prisoners are involved, activists say that they have documented more than 800 participants — a significant portion of the prison population in a small island state of 1.6 million people. Their collective action has spilled into the streets, with relatives of prisoners holding scattered demonstrations for two weekends in a row, marching with their portraits and calling for them to be freed.
“This strike came from inside prisons to deliver a clear message to all Bahrain and the world that we exist and we have rights,” said Fatima Haroun, who joined a protest on Friday to support her 23-year-old son, Ahmed al-Arab. She said he was only 15 when he was jailed after the Arab Spring and accused of belonging to a terrorist cell.
The unrest reflects frustrations with and mistrust of the government since the 2011 uprising was crushed, as many Bahrainis still complain of corruption, sectarian discrimination and the rising cost of living, according to activists.
Similarly in the past few weeks, rare protests have also gathered momentum in Syria, where increasing economic hardship has boiled over into political demands. Those protests, too, have recalled scenes from the Arab Spring uprising there that was violently suppressed by the government, then morphed into a long-running war.
Together, the movements show how hard it can be for even authoritarian states to stamp out resistance when people feel they have little left to lose.
Though their protests have not been large, it is “incredibly significant” for Bahrainis to be demonstrating and chanting political slogans for the first time in years, said Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist who lives in exile in Denmark.
“They know what the consequences are. They know what the risks are. And they’re doing that anyway,” she said.
Bahrain, just off the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is an American ally and home to to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The kingdom’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad, is expected to visit Washington next week, a State Department spokesman said on Tuesday.
The royal family is Sunni Muslim, but it rules over a majority Shiite Muslim population, which complains of discrimination.
Like other Arab countries, including Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, Bahrain witnessed a major uprising in 2011, when more than 100,000 people gathered in the streets to protest, many of them calling for an end to the monarchy.
With assistance from neighboring countries, Bahraini security forces put down that uprising, opening fire on protesters and arresting thousands. But sporadic unrest went on for years, and many Bahrainis continue to express deep frustration with their situation.
“They are more interested in pleasing the United States and Israel than addressing the rights of their own people,” Fatima Ali, a Bahraini activist, said of the government. “They see us as animals who should be caged.”
This week, a visit by the Israeli foreign minister stirred controversy in the kingdom, where many citizens oppose ties to Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians. The visit added “insult to injury” while the hunger strike went on, Ms. Ali said.
In Jau prison, where the hunger strikers are playing out, entire buildings are filled with young men who were sentenced to death or life in prison after the uprising. Many vehemently deny the charges against them and say their confessions were extracted with torture.
One prisoner said he joined the hunger strike because he felt it was his only option after watching friends “leave prison as corpses,” something he attributed to medical neglect and other “systematic restrictions.” He spoke to The New York Times via phone on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of retribution.
“We have no intention of backing down,” he said. “Our demands are simple and just, and we haven’t asked for the impossible.”
The government’s National Communication Center claimed that 116 people were currently on hunger strike and that earlier, a maximum of 124 people had joined. It said even that tally could be an overestimation because it was based on the prisoners’ own declarations.
But the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a human rights organization in London, shared with journalists a list of more than 800 inmates on hunger strike, which it collected by communicating with prisoners and their relatives.
Images of what appeared to be internal prison records, obtained by the Times, showed that the number of men on hunger strike in just one of the prison buildings was greater than the government’s count for the entire prison. The prison has 10 or more buildings.
Last week, Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Office, issued a statement saying that the office was “deeply concerned for the well-being of those involved.”
The Bahraini government said none of the participants had needed critical care or hospitalization and that all prisoners “are afforded the same health care provision as members of the public.”
But Ms. al-Khawaja said that her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Danish-Bahraini political activist who is one of the country’s most prominent prisoners, began a water-only hunger strike on Aug. 9 after being denied access to a cardiologist. A few days later, he was rushed to intensive care, she said.
Since then, Mr. al-Khawaja, 62, has been participating in a limited strike, returning his meals while consuming juice or coffee with milk when he feels faint, she added. The government, however, denied this account.
“Mr. al-Khawaja is not part of the strike,” the government said.
Ms. Haroun said that her son had been denied medical treatment in the past “under the pretext that he is a dangerous prisoner” and that a military hospital had refused to receive him when he needed treatment for several fractures.
The government said that since the strike began, it approved several changes, including increasing open-air time for inmates from one to two hours daily and adding further educational provisions, including the launch of a digital library for the prisoners.
The country “continues to build on the wide-ranging judicial and prison reforms already implemented in recent years,” the government statement said.
Family members of detainees insisted that the strike was an inevitable response to poor conditions.
Youssef Ahmed Marzouk said that his son Muhammad Youssef, 37, was on hunger strike “demanding his most basic rights,” including better health care and being allowed to pray in the prison mosque.
Ms. al-Khawaja, who was previously jailed in Bahrain herself, said a hunger strike was an act of desperation.
“You know how painful it’s going to be. You know the effect it’s going to have on your body,” she said. “You really have to be on the edge and feel like you have no other tool of protest.”
A freelance journalist contributed reporting from Bahrain.