A former airport security guard who is on death row in Bahrain for a crime he alleges he was tortured into confessing to has urged Pope Francis to call for his release during the pontiff’s visit to the Gulf state.

In a letter shared exclusively with the Guardian through the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), Mohammed Ramadhan, who has been in prison for nine years, asked the pontiff to “ask the king of Bahrain to release me and reunite me with my family and children”.

Francis begins his three-day visit to Bahrain, where the largest Catholic church in the Gulf region opened last December, on Thursday. Bahrain has been criticised for serious human rights violations, especially its crackdown on the kingdom’s Shia Muslim majority in the aftermath of the 2011 pro-democracy uprising.

Ramadhan, 39, and a second man, Husain Moosa, 36, both Shia Muslims, were convicted of a bombing in which a police officer was killed in 2014 and sentenced to death despite a Bahraini investigation finding medical evidence that matched the allegations of torture.

Ramadhan had previously attended peaceful pro-democracy rallies, including one that took place on the third anniversary of Bahrain’s uprising.

The prisoner, who criticised the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, for failing to keep a promise to raise his case during a visit to Bahrain last year, also claims that the Jau prison authorities are denying him medical attention for a painful lump in his neck.

At least 26 prisoners are on death row in Bahrain, of whom 12 have been sentenced in political cases, according to BIRD. All 26 are at risk of imminent execution as they have exhausted all domestic remedies, the final step being the ratification of their death sentences by King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa.

A recent report from Human Rights Watch and BIRD investigated eight cases of death row prisoners and found their trials had been in serious breach of international law, with sentences based solely on confessions that were allegedly forced through torture, including alleged electrical shocks to genitals, beatings, sleep deprivation and attempted rape.

Hasan Mushaima, the 74-year-old former leader of Bahrain’s opposition, is serving a life sentence for his role in leading the 2011 pro-democracy movement. In a letter addressed to the pope and also seen by the Guardian, he wrote: “The ruler’s claims of pluralism, diversity of opinions, tolerance and love are disproven by evidence and events which have played out over the years. It would also be disproven by a thorough visit to Bahrain’s prisons, which are filled with innocent people who pay the price for their demands of minimum rights.”

The families of death row inmates have also called on the pope to push for their release. “Our family members remain behind bars and at risk of execution despite the clear injustice of their convictions,” they wrote in a letter. “Many of them were targeted because they took part in pro-democracy protests during the Arab spring.”

Francis will attend the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence, and celebrate a public mass at the Bahrain national stadium on Saturday.

In a tweet on Wednesday, the pontiff said: “Tomorrow I leave for an apostolic journey to the kingdom of Bahrain, a journey under the banner of dialogue. I will participate in a forum focusing on the inescapable need for the east and west to come closer together for the good of human coexistence.”

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