Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa pardoned 901 prisoners by royal decree on March 12. Speculation around this decision centers on the Gulf kingdom’s efforts to save face in light of postponing a Formula 1 event—the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix.

However, evidence points to damage control focused more on medical concerns than a global image. Bahrain’s Jaw Prison, already possessing a reputation for poor infrastructure, is alleged to hold a prisoner with COVID-19.

Australian-based Fatima Yazbek, head of the committee on reports and studies at Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, suspects this mass pardon is an effort to minimize the coronavirus threat and is not an act of benevolence.

“In light of the miserable conditions of prisons in Bahrain, there are serious concerns of the virus spreading.”

“Inmates say this Pakistani prisoner who arrived three days ago has high fever, fatigue, and is coughing continuously,” Yazbek told Al-Monitor. “In light of the miserable conditions of prisons in Bahrain, there are serious concerns of the virus spreading. The cells are not well ventilated, they are overcrowded and lack regular sterilizing.”

In the case of Hajer Mansoor’s pardon amid this coronavirus damage control, Bahrain is suspected to have released her in an effort to deviate media attention from the real problem: the possibility of a deadly contagion in an already pitifully managed prison.

Mansoor, who was imprisoned three years ago over the dissent of her son-in-law—London-based human rights activist Sayed Nizar Al-Wadaei, may very well be a pawn of diversionary tactics. Her initial arrest was also questionable, as authorities accused her of planting a fake bomb.

Suspiciously enough, Mansoor was released a week before the mass pardon on March 5.

Despite Mansoor’s release displayed as a humanitarian victory to convince people that the pardoned are mostly prisoners of conscience, Al-Wadaei dispels this myth.

“Unfortunately, the pardons did not include prominent activists and politicians,” Al-Wadaei wrote in a tweet. “They also did not include the only female political prisoner Zakia Al-Barbouri. The vast majority of prisoners [released] are foreign or criminal convicts. So far, the state has not released a full list of names of the pardoned and it’s unknown if it will do so with the national paper.”

“The pardons did not include prominent activists. . . .The vast majority of prisoners [released] are foreign or criminal convicts.”

Other Bahrainis, almost exclusively members of the kingdom’s Shia majority, voiced their disbelief as well.

Bahraini citizen Ahmad Al-Khabaz expressed his utmost joy for the release of his brother Mohammed who was imprisoned seven years for dissent. Al-Khabaz still has three other brothers in prison, all sentenced with similar charges.

“One of my brothers, Mohammed Al-Khabaz, was released after seven unjust years in prison,” Al-Khabaz wrote in a tweet. “He lost his son, who the regime postponed a passport for and could not receive medical attention, and three [of our family members] remain in prison: Maher Al-Khabaz, who is sentenced for execution, Fadhil Al-Khabaz, and Murtada Al-Khabaz. We wait to fulfill our celebrations until all our loved ones are free from the prisons of the oppressors.”

[Coronavirus in Arab Gulf States: Symptoms Include Range of Xenophobia]

Other Bahraini dissidents, most of whom have been imprisoned since the 2011 protests against the Sunni monarchy, remain incarcerated.

On March 17, Bahrainis marked the nine-year anniversary of the 2011 protests which, in contrast to the stated pardon, led to a mass arrest of movement leaders, some of whom are Shia clerics. Between the March 12 mass pardon up until the anniversary, Bahrain continued to slowly release more prisoners but maintained the imprisonment of the leaders.

On March 17, Bahrainis marked the nine-year anniversary of the 2011 protests which led to a mass arrest of movement leaders.

From the Bahraini government’s standpoint, releasing the foot soldiers of a movement while keeping the leaders captive may very well be intentional—since coronavirus is highly contagious and COVID-19 remains deadly. It can be argued then that the blood of opposition leaders will be on the government’s hands.

With that tactic, Bahrain is creating a sense of human rights immunity: pardoning enough dissenting voices to gain the media’s spotlight, even as their leaders face a viral outbreak in the shadows of prisons.

Bahraini lawyer and journalist Mohammed Al-Othman commended the kingdom’s decree to pardon prisoners but focused his attention on Bahrainis abroad amid the outbreak. Along with a virus outbreak and the euphoria of reconnected families, public awareness for the coronavirus effects on prisoners is minimal.

“We are with the government in its precautionary measures to combat the coronavirus. However, the government has an obligation to return the stranded Bahrainis across the world,” Al-Othman wrote in a tweet to over 15,000 followers.

As of March 17, Bahrain reports a total of 214 coronavirus cases with one death—the first reported death in the Gulf states. The small kingdom is also home to less than 1.7 million people; this number coupled with a highly contagious virus may create one of the world’s highest virus-per-capita situations.

If these numbers become a reality and the contagion gets worse, prisoners of conscience who remain in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison will get much shorter ends of the stick than they’ve already received.

Human Rights Watch indicates Bahrain’s prisons are already medically dysfunctional, adding fuel to the coronavirus fire.

Human Rights Watch indicates Bahrain’s prisons are already medically dysfunctional, adding fuel to the current coronavirus fire. Prisoners are often refused attention and care despite having serious health issues like lymphoma or disabilities caused by childhood polio. Additionally, a good portion of prisoners of conscience held a hunger strike in 2019 which, in a prison setting, may indicate poor physical health as is the case for many of them.

As the hunger strike was ongoing, Bahraini prisons were so unsanitary to the point of a scabies outbreak—a highly infectious skin disease—which infected over half of the prison population.

The coronavirus outbreak is substantially more infectious than the nonfatal scabies and unlike the skin disease, COVID-19 is currently both incurable and deadly.