Scholars at Risk respectfully urges Bahrain to reinstate professors, students

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    Scholars at Risk respectfully urges Bahrain to reinstate professors, students

    February 14, 2012: 
    Scholars at Risk (SAR) respectfully calls upon authorities in Bahrain on the anniversary of the 2011 public protests to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and to take additional steps to protect the higher education sector. 

    Scholars at Risk is an international network of over 270 universities and colleges in 34 countries dedicated to promoting academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of thought, opinion, expression, association and travel.  In cases involving alleged infringement of these freedoms, SAR intervenes hoping to clarify and resolve matters favorably.  SAR has been monitoring events in Bahrain since protests that took place in February and March 2011. SAR has been especially concerned by the reports of infringements of academic freedom and human rights directed against professors, students, and staff at higher education institutions in Bahrain.  SAR respectfully calls upon authorities in Bahrain:

    •    to urge Bahraini university leaders to reinstate professors and higher education professionals dismissed in connection with last year’s protests, especially Professor Masaud Jahromi, former Chairman of the Telecommunication Engineering Department at Ahlia University;

    •    to implement the BICI’s recommendations regarding the investigation into the treatment of students and reinstatement of students who were expelled;

    •    to intervene to ensure the well-being of all scholars, professors, students, writers and other public intellectuals still in detention, pending their earliest release, including ensuring regular access to the legal counsel of their choosing, to family and to medical treatment, especially in the cases of Professor Abduljalil Al-Singace and Mahdi 'Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, President of the Bahrain Teachers Association;

    •    to ensure that any hearings and appeals in cases of scholars, higher education professionals and students are addressed in a manner consistent with internationally recognized standards of due process and fair trial, in accordance with Bahrain’s obligations under international law; and

    •    to guarantee the right to academic freedom, including its constituent freedoms of thought, opinion, expression, association and travel, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Bahrain has acceded.

    In calling upon authorities to implement the recommendations of the BICI report, SAR recognizes its value but further recognizes that its impact depends in large part upon the response of the government.  The government’s establishment of a commission to review the recommendations of the BICI and present a plan for implementing those recommendations is a step in the right direction, but additional action is warranted.  It has been over two months since the BICI issued its recommendations, yet professors remain unable to return to their academic roles, students remain banned from pursuing their studies and several members of the higher education community remain in prison, some without regular access to needed medical care, family and legal counsel; others reporting mistreatment while in detention.  SAR remains concerned by these reports and will continue to monitor the situation while respectfully urging authorities in Bahrain to act responsibly and without delay.

    Background on reports of violations in the higher education sector

    February 14, 2011 marked the beginning of a period of large, public demonstrations in Bahrain involving several hundred thousand Bahrainis calling for democratic reforms.  After initial pressures failed to end the demonstrations, a month-long period of demonstrations followed.  On March 15, 2011, authorities sought to end the demonstrations by instituting a State of National Safety.  Pressures and violence against those who participated in the protests and those who expressed criticism of the government followed, including the arrest, dismissal and expulsion of many scholars, higher education professionals and students.  Scholars at Risk received multiple reports indicating that professors, higher education professionals and students in Bahrain have suffered intimidation and pressure following the demonstrations, including:

    Scholars

    Professor Abdul Jalil Al-Singace
    , a professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Bahrain and head of the human rights office of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, was arrested in August 2010, released briefly in February 2011, and then re-arrested in March 2011 for his reported involvement in peaceful protests and calls for democratic reforms. Professor Al-Singace has been held incommunicado without access to his family, legal representation or medical care, in spite of the fact that he suffers from poliomyelitis. (It was reported that his crutches and wheelchair, on which he depends for mobility, were confiscated. See Human Rights Watch, Bahrain: Pursue Torture Allegations, 1 September 2010, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/09/01/bahrain-pursue-torture-allegations.) In June 2011, he was sentenced to life in prison on allegations stemming from his exercise of internationally recognized rights of free expression and association. On September 28, 2011, Professor Al-Singace’s sentence was confirmed and upheld by the military-run National Safety Court of Appeal. Professor Al-Singace remains in prison.

    Professor Masaud Jahromi, former Chairman of the Telecommunication Engineering Department Ahlia University, was arrested and taken from his home on April 14, 2011. According to reports, the police broke into his house in the middle of the night, threatened and harassed members of his family, confiscated the family’s laptops, and beat Professor Jahromi before taking him away to an undisclosed location. He was denied access to his family for over one month. Reports also indicated that Professor Jahromi did not receive required medical treatment. He was held for five months, initially without charge, and was suspended from his position at the university. Professor Jahromi was released on bail on September 12, 2011 and was tried in January 2012 for his “participation in an unauthorized rally.” Reports indicate that he was sentenced to four months in prison and fined 500BD (approximately US$1,300, calculated based on exchange rate on date of sentence, January 19, 2012). SAR notes that the verdict does not seem to address the fact that Professor Jahromi spent five months in prison—one month more than the verdict dictates—and that he has not regained his position as a professor at Ahlia University.

    Rula Al Saffer, Assistant Professor at the College of Health Sciences and the Head of the Bahrain Nursing Society, was detained on April 4, 2011 and was released on bail in late August 2011. (See Esther Addley, The Guardian, The Bahraini medic who went to save lives and put her own in danger, 21 October 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/21/bahraini-medic-save-lives-danger.) She was sentenced on September 29, 2011 to 15 years in prison.

    Higher education professionals

    Mahdi 'Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, President of the Bahrain Teachers Association, was detained on April 6, 2011 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges related to his alleged involvement and exercise of his right to free expression in the pro-democracy protests and the Bahrain Teachers Association’s calls for a teachers’ strike during the protests. He remains in prison, and reports indicate that his health is deteriorating. (See Education International, Bahrain: Help free trade union leader Mahdi 'Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb!, 2 February 2012, http://www.ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/2070.) He is scheduled to appear before the court of appeal on February 19, 2012.

    Jalila Al Salman, Vice President of the Bahrain Teachers Association, was detained on March 29, 2011 and was sentenced to 3 years in prison, also on charges related to her exercise of her right to free expression in the pro-democracy protests and the Bahrain Teachers Association’s calls for a teachers’ strike. (See Front Line Defenders, International Mission to Bahrain Report, Justice Denied in Bahrain: Freedom of Expression and Assembly Curtailed, January 2012, http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/files/bahrainmissionreportjanuary2012final.pdf.) She is currently free on bail but reported experiencing ill treatment while in detention.

    Attacks on the higher education sector have persisted beyond individual cases. Reports indicate that the University of Bahrain dismissed at least 100 faculty and staff between April and August primarily for attending the protests or posting related links on social media sites. (See Human Rights Watch, Bahrain: Reinstate Ousted Students, Faculty: Hundreds Dismissed for Peaceful Dissent, 24 September 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/24/bahrain-reinstate-ousted-students-faculty.)

    Students

    SAR received reports that more than 500 students pursuing higher education were suspended or expelled (see Human Rights Watch, Bahrain: Reinstate Ousted Students, Faculty: Hundreds Dismissed for Peaceful Dissent, 24 September 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/24/bahrain-reinstate-ousted-students-faculty), including 63 Bahrain Polytechnic students who were expelled from the university. At least 31 of those students have been reinstated, along with over 400 students from the University of Bahrain, but at least 60 students from the two schools remain expelled and a number remain in detention, where they are currently facing charges. SAR received reports indicating that the imprisoned students have been denied regular access to family and to legal representation. Others—those who were dismissed but not detained—indicated that they have been barred from pursuit of higher education within Bahrain.

    Background:  BICI findings related to the higher education sector

    In June 2011 the government of Bahrain established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) which was “tasked with investigating and reporting on the events that took place in Bahrain from February 2011, and the consequences of those events”. (See Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, http://www.bici.org.bh/.) The members of the commission included Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni (Chair), Dr. Badria A. Al-Awadhi, Dr. Mahnoush H. Arsanjani, Judge Philippe Kirsch Q.C. and Professor Sir Nigel Rodley KBE, all non-nationals who served the BICI independently of any government or institution.

    On November 23, 2011, the BICI released a report detailing the events of February and March 2011 “and related subsequent events”. (See Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, Statement on the work of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 23 November 2011, http://www.bici.org.bh/index2404.html?news=statement-on-the-work-of-the-bahrain- independent-commission-of-inquiry. The full report is available at http://www.bici.org.bh/.) The BICI report includes findings related to violations of academic freedom and human rights directed against professors, students, and higher education professionals.

    Chapter VI, Section D (Treatment of Persons in Custody) reports on the treatment of persons in custody, including a number of recommendations for further investigation and protections against mistreatment. These include an additional investigation by an independent body into all allegations of torture and similar treatment, subsequent compensation for those who have been subjected to such treatment, and legal proscriptions and training for security forces, judiciary and prosecutorial personnel. SAR welcomes the recommendations and hopes that the government of Bahrain will apply them to any members of the higher education sector who have alleged mistreatment in custody. 

    Chapter VI, Section E (Detention and Prosecution in Connection with Expression, Association, and Assembly) reports on detention and prosecution directly connected to acts of expression, association, and assembly. It finds that a large number of individuals were prosecuted and imprisoned for violating articles 165, 168, 169, 179 and 180 of the Bahrain Penal Code that, broadly applied, seem to restrict expressive activity. The report states that “In the light of the way that these provisions have been applied in Bahrain, the Commission has a number of concerns about their conformity with international human rights law and with the Constitution of Bahrain.” (BICI, 311) The BICI found that the government used those articles “to punish those in the opposition and to deter political opposition.” (BICI, 311) SAR welcomes the recommendation that “all persons charged with offences involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence, have their convictions reviewed and sentences commuted or, as the case may be, outstanding charges against them dropped.” (BICI, 424) SAR urges authorities to apply the recommendations to those in the higher education sector who face or faced detention or prosecution connected to their nonviolent expressive activity related to the protests.

    Chapter VII, Section B (Terminations of Private and Public Sector Employment) reports on the termination of public and private sector employees. SAR is concerned that there is no mention in this section of the dismissal of professors from the University of Bahrain, a public university. However, the BICI does urge the government of Bahrain “to ensure that these remaining dismissed employees have not been dismissed because of the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, opinion, association or assembly” (BICI, 354).  SAR welcomes that recommendation and encourages the government to apply it to dismissed professors and staff at higher education institutions in Bahrain.

    Chapter VII, Section C (Dismissal of Students and Suspension of Scholarships) reports on the dismissal of students and suspension of student scholarships at the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic. It provides a detailed description of the protests held on the campus of the University of Bahrain in March 2011, the initial university investigations of students suspected to have been involved in the protests, the expulsion and suspension of students, the universities’ review of those disciplinary actions, and the subsequent reinstatement of some of the students. In addition to the general fact of the investigation, expulsion, and suspension of students, SAR finds the following findings particularly distressing:

    “Students reported that in a number of cases, university administration or faculty referred students to the police or [Ministry of the Interior] for criminal interrogations. Numerous students from the University of Bahrain submitted statements to the Commission detailing accounts of their arrests, detention and criminal interrogations. Some students reported that during interrogations they experienced degrading treatment at the hands of police officers and governmental security agents”.  (BICI, 362)

    “Many of the expelled students were seniors and scheduled to graduate. Students who were dismissed were initially unable to obtain their official transcripts from the university. Students also reported that they had faced difficulties enrolling in other universities in the country and region, and stated that no other local university would accept students who had been expelled in connection with the protests. Some students, under a travel ban for political activities, were unable to study abroad. Professors and educators at the university were barred by order of the university administration from providing references to any expelled or suspended students”. (BICI, 363)

    “The University of Bahrain also indicated to Commission investigators that it declined to take disciplinary action against students who were at protests but not actively involved in them (the ―shyly participating students referred to above). However, the number of students initially expelled, compared with the number of students present at the demonstrations of 13 March 2011, suggest otherwise”. (BICI, 365)

    “Many students were also later detained or imprisoned, some for more than three months. According to information provided to the Commission by the Bahrain Youth Human Rights Society, approximately 78 university students in Bahrain were arrested or detained after February 2011 in connection with the protests. The Commission received 73 similar reports corroborating this information”. (BICI, 365)

    “While the universities established investigation committees and an appeals procedure in order to discipline students connected to the events of [Feb/Mar 2011], the universities often applied arbitrary and unclear standards for issuing determinations and taking disciplinary action. The universities largely relied on insufficient or circumstantial evidence, and drew conclusions about alleged student involvement in criminal activity from assumptions and improper inferences”. (BICI, 365)

    In light of these findings and SAR’s own investigation of the situation of students in Bahrain, SAR supports the BICI’s conclusion that “[t]he University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic took indiscriminate disciplinary action against students based on their involvement in the February/March 2011 demonstrations, and thereby infringed on their right to free expression, assembly and association” (BICI, 366). SAR welcomes the BICI’s recommendations that universities “[r]einstate all students who have not been criminally charged with an act of violence,” “[e]nsure that there is a procedure in place whereby students who were expelled on legitimate grounds may apply for reinstatement after a reasonable period of time,” and “[a]dopt clear and fair standards for disciplinary measures against students and to ensure that they are applied in a fair and impartial manner” (BICI, 366).

    END.

    To access a PDF version of the alert, please visit: http://www.scholarsatrisk.nyu.edu/Documents/SAR_Bahrain_alert_02.14.2012.pdf. For information on SAR’s advocacy work, please visit: http://scholarsatrisk.nyu.edu/Education-Advocacy/Alerts-Scholars-in-Prison.php. For more information on Scholars at Risk, please visit: www.scholarsatrisk.org.