2 Reports Denounce Bahrain for Violations of Academic Freedom

November 27, 2011

Two reports released last week sharply condemn Bahrain for attacks on academic freedom, including the dismissals of professors and students for participating in political demonstrations last spring.

Human-rights activists say that the reports need to be followed by action, and that one of the reports does not go far enough in its conclusions. In particular, they say, the report by the more politically powerful panel, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was established by the king of Bahrain, appears to ignore the plight of many professors entirely and offers only weak recommendations about the students who were expelled. Many students and professors who were dismissed for political activity have not gotten their jobs or their student status back despite the commission's investigation.

The government-established panel's recommendations were "incredibly toothless," said Laurie A. Brand, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and chair of the Middle East Studies Association's Committee on Academic Freedom. She said she believed the report, in essence, tells those in power in the Bahraini government who committed numerous "gross violations" of civil and academic rights that they should let go of those they charged unfairly. She asks how those in power who have violated human rights in the past can be expected to do better in the future, despite the difficulty they seem to have had in even defining the freedoms they are protecting.

The second report, "Bahrain: The Human Price for Freedom and Justice," was issued by several Bahrain-based human-rights groups. Its authors wrote, "We believe that the Bahraini government is only interested in plastering over the cracks in its international reputation and not in addressing the longstanding systemic problems which led to the violations witnessed during 2011."

The Commission of Inquiry's report found that the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic took "indiscriminate disciplinary action against students based on their involvement in the February/March 2011 demonstrations" and "infringed on their right to free expression, assembly, and association." The report called for the reinstatement of all students who were not charged with criminal violations.

Bahraini civil rights will stay in the academic spotlight this week. At its annual meeting in Washington, the Middle East Studies Association will give its 2011 Academic Freedom Award to the faculty and staff members and students at Bahraini institutions of higher education. In a statement that will accompany the award, the association said that hundreds of academics "have been dismissed, arrested, humiliated, and tortured during detention; some have been required to sign loyalty oaths; others have had their scholarships withdrawn."

Another organization, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, will present the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, with an award this week for his work on behalf of democracy in Bahrain.

Scant Notice

Members of the Middle East Studies Association said that part of the reason the group's award was given to Bahraini academics this year is that the violations of civil and academic rights there have received relatively little attention, compared with violations in the other countries that have been swept up in the Arab Spring. The Bahraini government quashed protests fairly quickly, with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The government destroyed the monument at the center of the Pearl Roundabout, the Bahraini equivalent of Egypt's Tahrir Square, and the U.S. government has made very restrained comments about human rights in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet has its base.

A member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said that there are still 38 students at the University of Bahrain who have not been reinstated, and 31 in the same situation at Bahrain Polytechnic. She and others say that the government sets up checkpoints where current students are questioned and humiliated, that two students were recently kidnapped by security forces, and that loyalty pledges that students have to sign to attend the public universities forbid them from engaging in any political activities, both on and off campus. "Freedom of expression is out of the question," she said.

A previous Human Rights Watch report found that the Bahraini government suspended or expelled 500 students, that security forces detained and questioned at least 15 professors from three universities, and that the University of Bahrain alone fired 100 professors after the Pearl Roundabout protests. In October, six university students were sentenced to 15-year jail terms and a military court sentenced another student to an 18-year term.

One student at Bahrain Polytechnic who was expelled in June for participating in off-campus political protests says she was told by the Commission of Inquiry just before the semester started in September that all expelled and suspended students would be allowed to return. But she did not get back her student-identification card, which had been taken away from her when she was expelled, and was not allowed to return to campus.

She went back to the commission with her empty identification-card holder and an empty backpack, and told it she had not been reinstated. "Why is there no card inside my card holder and why are there no books in my backpack?" she asked. She returned, day after day, to visit the commission, she told The Chronicle, waiting for the chance to argue for the complete reinstatement of all students.

Eventually Bahrain Polytechnic said it would take her back for the second semester of the year, in about three months. She has not backed off from her original desire for democratization in Bahrain: "We need to elect our own regime. That is why we went to the Pearl Roundabout."


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