The Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain is home to 1.6 million people and currently battling one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks per capita.

Its crowded prisons — where many people are incarcerated on what human rights groups say are politically motivated charges — have been hit hard by this wave of the pandemic.

The death of one of those prisoners — Husain Barakat, an inmate in Bahrain’s notorious Jau prison — sparked a rare anti-government protest Wednesday by hundreds of people angry about Barakat’s death and worried about the health of other prisoners held in crowded and unsanitary conditions, said Sayed Ahmed Al Wadaei, director of advocacy for the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

Barakat, 48, died Wednesday of covid-19 at a hospital, where he had been put on a respirator in the intensive care unit, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior reported.

“There is systematic medical negligence,” Al Wadaei told The Washington Post. “They [the government] don’t want to acknowledge the scale of the problem. … It was an avoidable death.”

A government spokesperson denied the accusation. “Covid-19 cases are dealt with in accordance with a clear treatment protocol under the supervision of the Ministry of Health, and all approved preventive measures are designed to reduce active cases in the prison population and save lives,” they wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

Bahrain is battling its largest surge yet in confirmed coronavirus cases despite a high vaccination rate. It has relied heavily on the Chinese-made Sinopharm shots, which studies have shown may not induce sufficient antibodies to prevent infection.

Barakat had two shots of the Sinopharm vaccine, which has been offered in prisons, according to Al Wadaei.

The United Arab Emirates, which has also distributed many Sinopharm shots, is now offering a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is based on a different technology. Bahrain this month said it would do the same.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which has been monitoring covid-19 conditions in Bahrain’s prisons, documented the first positive coronavirus case in Jau prison on March 22. As more people tested positive in the following days, families struggled to find out information about their relatives inside, Al Wadaei said.

This sparked the first round of covid-related protests against prison conditions in late March and April. Communities in at least 28 towns and villages took the rare and risky step of mobilizing to demonstrate and criticize the ruling family. Dozens were detained for violating covid-19 restrictions, according to the United Nations.

Although the government released some prisoners, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights in early April called for the release of all political detainees at risk because of covid-19.

“Those being detained for expression of critical or dissenting views, protected by international human rights law, should be released immediately,” it said later that month.

Of the roughly 2,500 people held in Jau prison, about 1,440, or nearly 60 percent, are being held for political charges, said Al Wadaei. Some have been there since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, when Bahrain’s government, backed by neighboring Saudi Arabia, violently cracked down on pro-democracy and anti-sectarianism protests. Others were imprisoned in subsequent waves of political crackdowns, said Al Wadaei.

“They did not commit any crime,” he said. “Their only crime is calling for democracy in the country.”

Barakat was sentenced to life in prison along with 53 others in a mass trial in 2018. He was accused at the time of being part of a terrorist cell of an obscure militant group. He was stripped of his citizenship, a move criticized by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, although it was later reinstated.

A day before Barakat died, Al Wadaei estimated that 60 percent of the roughly 250 prisoners in Barakat’s building at Jau prison had been infected with the coronavirus.

Bahrain is a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf. It hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and is aligned with the United States and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s regional ambitions.

Al Wadaei said the Biden administration should take “firmer language” against Bahrain and demand that “those individuals must be released.”

Bahrain’s government has insisted that inmates are safe inside prisons.

“Bahrain’s comprehensive Covid-19 response has not stopped at the gates of prison facilities, all inmates are eligible for vaccination at no cost, and in line with WHO guidelines any inmate who falls ill has the same free access to treatment and care as any other citizen or resident in the Kingdom,” the spokesperson said in the email.

More reading: