Bahrain Cracks Down on Student Protesters With Harsh Sentences

A young woman joined protesters against Bahrain's government near the razed Pearl monument, a center of the demonstrations that some have likened to Cairo's Tahrir Square. Some 60 students remain expelled from universities in the country.
October 10, 2011

When protesters took to the streets of Bahrain eight months ago, they hoped to bring the Arab Spring to the small Persian Gulf island kingdom, and to end what they described as decades of discrimination by the ruling Sunni minority against the Shiite majority. But the repression that followed has dashed hopes for peaceful reform.

The crackdown has had "a chilling effect" on university campuses, says Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. Shiite students and professors told The Chronicle that discrimination against them is now "wide open" and described an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and intimidation.

On October 3, six university students were sentenced to 15-year jail terms and another student to an 18-year term by a special military court. They were accused of attempted murder, arson, and vandalism in connection with clashes that took place on the campus of the University of Bahrain, the main national university, on March 13. The students and their supporters say the violence that day was carried out by Bahrain security forces and government supporters, none of whom have been charged.

Other students and professors are facing charges of illegal assembly, incitement, and disturbing the peace. At least 100 professors and university administrators have been fired, and about 60 students have been denied the right to continue their studies.

The court cases, dismissals, and expulsions are "part of a campaign against all antigovernment and pro-democracy protesters," says a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a prominent local group that the government dissolved in 2004 but whose members continue to work anonymously online. "The movement hasn't stopped yet. Although they were attacked, detained, tortured, although students were suspended, still they demanded their right. The government is trying to silence them and pressure them."

Starting on February 14, Bahrain witnessed protests modeled on those that had toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Bahrain's majority Shiite population began a large peaceful sit-in at a central square known as the Pearl Roundabout, demanding more democratic governance and social justice from the small island kingdom's Sunni ruling family.

But the authorities accused the protesters of wanting to overthrow the government and of being agents of Iran. In March, they called in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (fellow Sunni monarchies), opened fire on protesters, razed the prominent monument that gave Pearl Roundabout its name, and declared a state of emergency. Since then, a wide-scale campaign of arrests, trials and dismissals has singled out not only professors and students, but also thousands of public-sector employees, doctors, and teachers.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, masked security forces have arrested professors in nighttime raids at their homes and have beaten and threatened students during interrogations.

Masaud Jahromi, a professor arrested in April and held incommunicado for a month, will go to trial on October 12 on charges of "attending an illegal gathering."

Bahraini scholars have been dismissed for crimes such as "forwarding e-mails defaming Bahrain" or "criticizing the government in front of non-Bahraini professors."

"All the dismissed are Shias. Ninty-nine-point-nine percent of those jailed were Shias. There's no way you can say it's not discrimination against Shias," says a professor fired from the University of Bahrain, who spoke to The Chronicle on condition of anonymity.

Summoned before a committee of "pro-government faculty members" the professor says he was shown photographs of himself in a protest march. When he hesitated to confirm his presence, he was told by the investigating committee that the questioning could be continued at the Ministry of Interior. He remains concerned that he might face further interrogations or a trial, like some of his colleagues.

The charges against him were "based on nothing that happened inside the university," says the professor. "I'm not active politically," he adds. "I'm not a member of any political association. But I'm a human being, I have political opinions."

More than 500 university students were also expelled. Most have been readmitted, after signing pledges that they will not engage in any political activities, on or off campus, on penalty of immediate suspension. Some students who expressed support for the protests had their scholarships revoked.

Eman Oun is one of 31 students who remains barred from Bahrain Polytechnic—a small new technical college founded a few years ago by Bahrain's crown prince. The 20-year old was questioned by the university's newly appointed deputy chief executive, Mohammed Ebrahim Al Aseeri, and other university administrators, she says.

"They asked me: Do you know how much the government spends on you? I was like, it's my right, it's not something you give me and tell me to be grateful."

Her university was closed during the protests, says Ms. Oun, but "they kept asking me questions about things not related to Bahrain Polytechnic: Did you go to Pearl Roundabout? How many times? Did you participate in any marches? They showed me printed copies of my Facebook status. They asked, can your Facebook posts be considered offensive to the political leaders of Bahrain?"

Ms. Oun was expelled for participating in unlicensed gathering and marches, calling for the downfall of the regime, and offending the political leaders of the kingdom. In their expulsion letters, both the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic make reference to a 2005 law that says educational institutions should "instill the spirit of citizenship and loyalty to the homeland and the king." However, the same law also calls on universities to develop "the awareness of the principles of human rights," "the individual's ability to think critically," and "the right of free expression."

Neither institution responded to requests for comment from The Chronicle.

Because of her expulsion, Ms. Oun says, she cannot apply to other universities in the kingdom.

Now, says Ms. Oun, "my family wants me to pursue my studies abroad. But I won't go. It's my right to get education in my country, and I'll fight to the end to get my right back."

The Bahraini royal family is being supported by neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has its own Shiite minority and fears Iranian influence among the Shiite populations of the region. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, and U.S. officials have been criticized for not speaking out strongly enough against the crackdown in the kingdom. Lawmakers in the United States recently introduced resolutions in the Senate and Congress to stop a $53-million arms sale to Bahrain that will otherwise go through this month.

Meanwhile, outside the capital city of Manama, protests and clashes continue. The security crackdown has only exacerbated the sectarian divisions within the country and the grievances of Bahraini Shiites.

The university's encouraging students and faculty to provide incriminating evidence from one another's' social-media profiles, and administrators' conducting their investigations in coordination with security forces, has created an atmosphere of suspicion and dread on campuses, faculty and students told The Chronicle.

In e-mails to the The Chronicle, a Shiite university student who didn't wish to be identified said she had withdrawn from classes this semester out of fear of being arrested while on campus. Another student described a campus "surrounded by walls and barbed wire," in which Shiite students are searched and threatened at the university gates by Ministry of Interior officials.

"What happened to us here is beyond comprehension," said the University of Bahrain professor who spoke ton condition of anonymity "People were instigated against each other. The trust is not there anymore. I trust nobody now."


More global news from The Chronicle

SIGN UP: Get Global Coverage in Your Inbox
JOIN THE CONVERSATION:    Twitter     LinkedIn