On September 22, 2022, the MPF was pleased to host a talk with Abbass Al-Morshid on Bahrain’s carceral system. Al-Morshid previously contributed a MENA Prison Log on the topic, addressing Bahrain’s methods of restricting freedoms throughout different historical periods. He addressed the importance of such types of talks in critically addressing the historical and current conditions not only in Bahrain but the wider MENA region in order to be able to discuss what a future system could and should look like. His work has specifically focused on the link between colonialism and carcerality, as his research explored how colonial systems in the region imposed systems of control, detention, and surveillance that have been used by states post-independence.
He was able to provide insights into the different carceral changes Bahrain as a country has gone through, and the unique nature of carcerality in the country versus others in the region. He specifically noted the tactic of imposing “slow death” onto political prisoners in Bahrain; through the treatment in prison in the forms of restricted access to healthcare and systemic deprivation of other services, there has been a trend in recent years of prisoners dying while in prison or upon their release. Even if prisoners do not die, they are left reduced and unable to work mentally or physically for years after their detention.
Al-Morshid shared insights a friend of his had shared with him. This individual was arrested and detained in Bahrain several times over the years from the late 1980s until 2016. He spoke about his experience, saying that in his previous times in detention he was physically tortured, including being electrocuted, but that his most recent stay in prison was worst, because by then the system had transformed from physical torture to psychological torture. The mental and emotional impact of his last period of imprisonment was more severe than the physical experiences he had previously been put through. These changes in Bahrain can be linked to a global sharing of surveillance, detention, and abuse tactics that shifted focus from physically destroying a prisoner to destroying one’s spirit.
The conversation in the talk focused at length on the exact nature of “prison reforms.” Al-Morshid stressed that any reform of the carceral system in Bahrain and other countries in the region needs to involve the establishment of an independent judiciary and legal system. He spoke at length about the politicized, co-opted nature of the legal system in Bahrain. Additional reforms needed in the country are linked to the multiple security systems and apparatuses used to surveil and control the population: he quoted that for every 200 people in Bahrain there is a security agent.
However, in speaking about needed “reforms,” the conversation addressed two other elements. The first was a needed “reformed” approach of society towards political prisoners. He spoke of the impact of stigmatization against prisoners, even upon their release and departure from the country, as there is a perception of them being activists and could involve dangers in being affiliated or associated with them. A second area that was addressed was that of the role of western or external non-governmental organizations that promote reformed conditions and tactics within carceral systems. For example, he spoke of a very swift transformation in treatment in prisons in Bahrain in 2011, While security guards had been beating and threatening prisoners, in the span of two weeks their approach completely changed and instead they were asking what the prisoners needed to be more comfortable. This was due to the fact that there was an international inquiry into prison conditions in Bahrain and a lot of international attention on the country at the time. While the treatment improved greatly, and he was not discounting that, Al-Morshid still stressed that reforms are needed at the systemic and legal level, not just in terms of the conditions and treatment within the prisons. In the same vein, Al-Morshid noted that the carceral situation in Bahrain is not different from the other five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and their collective security forces known as the Gulf Shield. The latter was used to repress the Bahraini protests in March 2011, after which Al-Morshid was detained and for which he is currently in exile in Europe. Because of their shared economic interests and ties, Al-Morshid’s critique was also directed at all the regimes of the GCC and their similar and shared means of detention.
Abbass Al-Morshid, a Bahraini human rights activist presents a cursive introduction to the evolution of the carceral system in Bahrain. He focuses on the genesis of “political prisoners” in Bahrain as interlinked with the rise of “politics” as Bahrain instituted itself as a state centered around “public order” in the 1920s. He also focuses on the transformation of the Fidawiya, the traditional security organization under the personal command of individual rules, to the modern system of a political apparatus managed under state institutions.
Al-Morshid’s work places the transformation of the Bahraini carceral system as part of similar transformations that occurred around the Mashreq and Maghreb under colonial rule and throughout state-forming processes. However, he calls out the fact that Bahrain’s case remains unique due to the rapid transformation it underwent, rendering the Bahraini carceral system exemplary in its own right.