Jaw. In Arabic, it means 'weather', and in Bahrain it is a place name. Taken as the English word, Jaw evokes images of the maw of a hungry beast, its jaws wide open, a sickening welcome to the end of its prey's life. Medieval Christian art often featured a beast, jaws open, swallowing men whole. This was the gates of hell.
The image persists to the modern day. Robert Sargent named his famous war photograph of American soldiers wading from their ships towards the beaches of Normandy 'Into the Jaws of Death'.
The Jaws of Death - the gates of hell. It is an apt image for Jaw Prison. Located on the east coast of Bahrain, the journey to Jaw is bleak. One drives through desert, past a small village and an out-of-place holiday resort to reach it. The only things past Jaw are the police academy and a military airfield. Jaw is where civilisation ends in Bahrain, and it is where civilised manners die, and civilised people broken.
Jaw is facing a crisis. On 10 March there was a protest in the prison. A family at the visitation centre were told their son was barred from visits. There was an altercation with the inmate's sister, where a police officer apparently hit her. The inmates in their visitation lobby were all taken back to the main prison buildings, where outrage sparked action.
Some prisoners began barricading their cells in protest. The authorities retaliated by locking the buildings from the outside and calling in reinforcements. Hundreds of police swarmed the prison. Buildings 1, 3, 4 and 6 - the prison is made up of ten - were subjected to a siege situation. The police broke through the barricades and flushed the inmates out with teargas. They marched the inmates out into the courtyards, where every one of them was beaten and humiliated by the police. The forces took shifts terrorising the inmates, passing the baton between Bahraini police and Jordanian units. The inmates were shot at with shotguns and sound grenades, aimed at their bodies. Inmates were forced to address the officers as 'master', beaten if they asked to be taken to the toilet (where they were given 30 seconds to relieve themselves), beaten during meals, and forced to insult their families or face more beatings.
Few prisoners were left unwounded by the end of the siege. Their bodies are burned by grenade explosions, their limbs broken by frequent beating, and they have been left without medical attention. Since the assault, all visitation has been suspended. The government says this is because of damage to the facilities, but the visitation centre was not damaged by the attack. More likely, it is to suppress the prisoners from telling their stories and showing their injuries.
Prisoners have rights and prisons should be centres of rehabilitation. In Bahrain, inmates are punished for being inmates, and punished collectively. Torture is a crime against humanity, yet it is a constant feature in Jaw.
This is not the first time we have witnessed horrific abuses in Jaw. Well over its 1201 prisoner capacity, it houses upwards of 2000 prisoners by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights' estimates, many of them protesters and activists imprisoned for exercising their free assembly, free expression and free association. Without enough rooms, let alone enough beds, inmates sleep on any floor space they can, in hallways, on dirty mattresses. They are stopped from receiving clothing and blankets from their families. The prison complex is infested with cockroaches; the toilets are coloured with rust and mould; there is no hot water or adequate air conditioning. This is purposeful: the aim is to destroy the prisoners' will.
Prisoners live in a constant state of anxiety. One prisoner, Ali Al-Taweel, has been in solitary confinement since his detention in 2012. Tortured and abused, Ali is on death row for a policeman's murder, which he was coerced to confess to. Barred from contact with the outside world for years now, only a few weeks ago he handed his lawyer a suicide note. Thrown in this abyss and left to rot, they are trying to break Ali.
Rather than hold the torturers accountable, Bahrain is covering up its abuses. Rather than improve the situation, they have wilfully allowed its deterioration, which is worse now than during martial law in 2011. No one has been held accountable, and there is no sign that anyone will be. 'Ombudsman', 'National Institute for Human Rights' - these are tiny 'reforms' which the Bahrainis and their backer the UK government (which has spent £1.5million sponsoring 'reform'), tout as the success story of Bahrain.
But this is the real story of Bahrain: torture and collective punishment in the Jaws of Hell.