BAHRAIN: Reinstate expelled students, says inquiry

An independent inquiry has concluded that hundreds of students in Bahrain were expelled from universities purely on the basis of pictures showing them standing in crowds at political demonstrations earlier this year. It has recommended that all students who have not been criminally charged with an act of violence should be reinstated.

On Wednesday the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry published its report into violent incidents and human rights violations related to political protests in February and March, and specifically examined the issue of punishments of university students.

It said authorities should ensure there is a procedure in place for students who were expelled on legitimate grounds to apply for reinstatement after a reasonable period of time.

It also advised adopting "clear and fair standards" for disciplinary measures against students and ensuring that they are applied in a "fair and impartial manner".

The commission was established by King Hamid bin Isa Al Khalifa and comprised international academics and judges. It was chaired by Professor M Cherif Bassiouni of the US and Egypt. Other members were Judge Philippe Krisch QS (Belgium and Canada); Professor Sir Nigel Simon Rodley (UK); Dr Mahnoush H Arsanjani (Iran); and Dr Badria A Al Awadhi (Kuwait).

In February and March students joined protestors who were demanding reforms to invest full legislative power in the hands of a fully elected parliament, rather than allowing the monarch to have the final say, and guarantees of freedoms and human rights.

Violent sectarian clashes erupted between Shia students who had been participating in the demonstrations and Sunni teenagers wielding sticks, knives, swords and metal rods.

The protests and incidents were followed by a decision dismiss and suspend large numbers of university students, which drew strong condemnation from Human Rights Watch.

The inquiry drew on site visits and interviews with more than 5,000 individuals.

After reviewing investigations into allegations against students conducted by Bahrain Polytechnic and the University of Bahrain, the inquiry noted that the investigations generally relied on hearsay and circumstantial evidence.

"It is of particular concern that hundreds of students were initially dismissed from the university simply after being identified in photographs showing them participating in a demonstration at the university campus," the report said.

Although the University of Bahrain repeatedly told commission investigators that it only disciplined students involved in disruptive, violent and criminal activities at the university, evidence provided by the university did not indicate that in every case wrongdoing had been clearly established, it said.

In respect of photographic evidence, the commission did not see any photographs in the university's investigative files establishing that a particular student had participated in a violent, criminal or disruptive act on campus.

On 22 August, the University of Bahrain provided commission investigators with copies of the investigative files compiled by the university's investigative committee on each student who was investigated.

The files included notes on the investigation, a written statement by each student, and in many cases printed photographs allegedly of students, often simply standing in a crowd. The university used these photographs as evidence of students' culpability. Files also often included snapshots of students' Facebook and Twitter pages.

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. However, the number of students initially expelled, compared with the number of students present at the demonstrations of 13 March, suggest otherwise.

While official records from the University of Bahrain indicate that approximately 400 to 500 students participated in the 23 March protests, the university initially expelled 427 students.

"It seems implausible to the commission that such a high percentage of the students who participated in protests at the university were deemed culpable of acts of violence and destruction of university property," the report said.

The expulsion of students is permitted in certain circumstances. However, the expulsions by the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic as related to the events of February and March were of such an extreme nature that some of the students were ostensibly prevented from ever again attending an institution of higher education in Bahrain.

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.

The University of Bahrain implicitly permitted demonstrations on its campus until 13 March, when clashes erupted. Further, Bahrain Polytechnic did not give students adequate notice that their participation in demonstrations off-campus would result in any disciplinary action. Students therefore reasonably believed that their participation in peaceful demonstrations would not result in disciplinary action.

While the universities established investigation committees and an appeals procedure in order to discipline students connected to the events of February and March, 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," the report said.

"The University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic took indiscriminate disciplinary action against students...and thereby infringed on their right to free expression, assembly and association."

There are 38 students who are not allowed to return to the University of Bahrain, as they are facing criminal charges.

The commission welcomed the move by the Ministry of Education on 25 August, in conjunction with the University of Bahrain, to reverse the vast majority of disciplinary decisions taken against students. It also noted with satisfaction that as of 12 November, 33 of 54 students initially expelled from Bahrain Polytechnic had been reinstated.

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