BAHRAIN: Reinstate sacked staff, says rights group

Human Rights Watch has called on universities in Bahrain to immediately reinstate hundreds of students, academics and staff who have been dismissed for voicing criticism of the government and royal family or for attending largely peaceful protests in February and March, when civil unrest engulfed the island.

The New York-based NGO also demanded that the University of Bahrain cease forcing students to sign an oath of loyalty to the ruling Al Khalifa famili and the government as a condition of enrolment.

It published an allegation by one professor at another university that a group of 11 members of staff were slapped and punched while blindfolded during interrogation at a police station. Another professor was held incommunicado for a month.

According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, the University of Bahrain sacked at least 100 academics and staff between April and August, mostly for attending anti-government demonstrations or posting links on social media.

Since May hundreds of students have been interrogated by university staff or education ministry officials and more than 500 have been suspended for a semester or expelled.

At the time the state news agency, BNA, reported that the investigations proved "their clear implication in the recent events which erupted at schools, jeopardised students' safety and created a sectarian rift", according to a report in Arabian Business.

More than 30 people have been killed in Bahrain since protests began in February, with the island's Shia majority demanding political, social and economic reforms from the Sunni royal family, according to the BBC.

In a gesture of reconciliation, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced last month that those who had been dismissed should be allowed to resume their studies. But many students have yet to be reinstated, Voice of America has reported.

Human Rights Watch issued the report on its investigation into the situation in Bahrain as students prepared for the new semester, which began on Sunday 25 September.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: "Bahraini authorities have punished students and professors - along with thousands of other Bahrainis - simply for exercising their right to criticise the government.

"Attacking students and professors who dare to dissent flagrantly violates their right to freedom of opinion and expression."

According to the report, in mid-May masked security forces carried out pre-dawn arrest raids on the homes of a number of university academics, holding them for several hours before releasing them without charge. Detained faculty members told Human Rights Watch that Interior Ministry interrogators appeared to have transcripts of their earlier interrogations by a university disciplinary committee.

In all, security forces detained and questioned at least 15 professors from three universities, and held one in custody for more than four months.

Human Rights Watch quoted one professor, who considered himself not politically active, who said: "One day, the Crown Prince appeared on TV and seemed to welcome the opposition marches.

"It was like the green light to silent people, like me, to participate without any expected punishment from the government. As a result, I took part in a march at the university organised by some students. Unfortunately I was wrong and the whole story was like a trap."

University administrators accused him of participating in an illegal march inside the campus, chanting anti-government slogans, abusing the symbols of the Kingdom of Bahrain and breaching his duties. They fired him in August.

On 27 August, government and university officials announced that 470 expelled students would be allowed to return, but would have to retake the spring semester.

But at least 60 students at the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic remain expelled and the permanent records of hundreds of others have been marred by their suspension for unspecified 'disciplinary' reasons, the NGO said.

More than 30 students and 20 professors who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that students, academics and staff continue to face harassment, intimidation and dismissal or loss of scholarships in retaliation for their support of pro-democracy public demonstrations.

Beginning in May, the University of Bahrain required all students to sign oaths of "complete loyalty to the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain, represented by His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa". The pledge includes a promise "not to organise or participate in any activity within the campus or outside that is irrelevant to student and academic affairs and authorised research".

According to Human Rights Watch, punishment of students and professors for exercising their right to free expression and assembly violates international and Bahraini law.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 2006, guarantees freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Bahrain's Law No 27 of 2005 on education calls for "developing awareness of principles of human rights" and "the right of free expression" in education, acknowledging the importance of free expression to academic freedom.

Nineteen professors at the University of Bahrain told the NGO that they were fired solely for exercising their right to peaceful expression. The university began investigating the professors in April and May, first suspending them with reduced pay and then dismissing them permanently in August.

In June, they were summoned to hearings before a university committee for offences such as "forwarding emails defaming Bahrain and its system to a third party", visiting a demonstration at the Pearl Roundabout, and "criticising the government in front of non-Bahraini professors". Some professors were also accused of missing lectures during the demonstrations, an allegation they contested.

A professor at another university told Human Rights Watch that security officers detained him and 10 colleagues on suspicion of attending the protest at the Pearl Roundabout, and beat them while they were in custody.

On 17 May, Interior Ministry officials went to the university and demanded that the 11 professors report to a police station, where they were blindfolded and interrogated.

"After each question and answer we [would] get a slap on the face or a punch in the back or stomach along with insults," the professor said. Police released the group after four hours saying they had nothing to charge the professors with.

Human Rights Watch reported that police burst into the house of Dr Masaud Jahroomi, chair of the engineering department at Ahlia University, in the middle of the night on 14 April, and arrested him. He was held incommunicado for a month before he was able to contact his family, according to his wife.

Jahroomi was released on bail four months later, on 12 September, and faces a criminal trial on Tuesday 27 September for "attending an illegal gathering".

While many of the dismissed students have reportedly been readmitted, dismissed professors have not been offered their jobs back, according to the report.

Of the students subjected to disciplinary action, more than 400 were enrolled in the University of Bahrain and more than 60 in Bahrain Polytechnic.

Twenty-nine students at three universities told Human Rights Watch that they were suspended or expelled simply for attending demonstrations at Pearl Roundabout or posting statements critical of the government on Facebook or Twitter.

The students said that university officials used photos and remarks from Facebook pages to identify those who participated in protests. Investigative committees questioned them for between 20 minutes and an hour, they said, and did not give them a meaningful opportunity to challenge the expulsion or suspension decisions.

On 22 September Human Rights Watch called on the United States to delay a proposed arms sale to Bahrain "until it ends abuses against peaceful critics of the ruling family and takes meaningful steps toward accountability for serious human rights violations".

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