BAHRAIN: WHERE A FACEBOOK “LIKE” GETS YOU EXPELLED

This comes from the Index on Censorship which “is Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression”.

14 Oct 2011

Students at Bahrain Polytechnic are being silenced and expelled for social media posts. Sara Yasin reports

For Eman Oun, 20, life was Bahrain Polytechnic. As a business student, she spent her days being an active member of the school’s campus community. Even though the new academic year started on 18 September, Oun is stuck at home.

“I am supposed to be in a classroom right now” Oun told Index. She is one of 31 studentspermanently expelled from Bahrain Polytechnic for allegedly being involved in pro-democracy protests in February.

65 students were initially investigated, and in June, 63 students were eventually expelled for“participating in unlicensed gatherings and marches” based on evidence mostly obtained from social media pages like Facebook.  After an external review of the case, 32 of the expelled students were allowed to return to Bahrain Polytechnic.

The February protests began while Bahrain Polytechnic was not in session. CEO John Scott sent text messages to students asking them to leave their political views “outside the Polytechnic”, emphasising the importance of a “neutral” and “safe” campus. But according to Asma Darwish, 21, the campus was anything but neutral.

Upon their return, all students signed a new code of conduct, warning of the consequences of “activities of a political nature”, and students agreed to keep the campus neutral.

Students were subjected to a four-week investigation by a committee including members of the Ministry of Education, where they were confronted with paper records of their social media activity. Darwish said that her Facebook page was “secure”, and speculated that “pro-government people” on her list handed her activity over to authorities. While some, like Oun, were peacefully protesting at Pearl Roundabout, others were expelled for “liking” a page on Facebook.

Darwish believes that it was clear that the new code of conduct was “aimed at anti-government students”, because pro-government students that came to school with “Saudi flags and pictures of the king” were not penalised for their political activity.

According to Tony Mitchell, 49, a former tutor at Bahrain Polytechnic from Australia, things drastically changed once government officials intervened and took over the school on 6 April. While Scott stressed the importance of a politically neutral campus and staff, the new administration put in place by the Ministry of Education made the role of the staff clear. Mitchell recalled being informed that Bahrain Polytechnic tutors were now considered to be government employees, and that there would be “no toleration for saying anything against the government.”

For Mitchell, “the cards were pretty much stacked” against him. Much like Darwish and Oun, it is believed pro-government individuals exposed him. He lived near Pearl Roundabout, and he videoed the protests in February and shared them on YouTube. Mitchell’s contract was terminated for “supporting pro-democracy protests.”

Like many other members of Bahrain Polytechnic’s staff, Mitchell is a foreigner, and he found himself confronted with events that seemed to clash with the culturally modern image that Bahrain strives for. While Bahrain appeared to be “progressive and modern” compared to his past experience living in Oman, Mitchell was still shocked by what happened with the protests.

For many staff members, the protests and treatment of students was a rude awakening. Mitchell said that the “majority of ex-pat staff didn’t understand what was happening. They didn’t understand the seriousness of it.”

Darwish was one of the students allowed to return to Bahrain Polytechnic. Even though Oun and Darwish had similar offenses, Oun was kept from returning. Oun, called the selection process “arbitrary”, because the way the administration made the decision was unclear.

For Darwish and the other students, continuing their education at Bahrain Polytechnic came at a cost. She was forced to repeat a semester, and repay fees. She believes that the new administration is trying to “bully” them into quitting their studies.

Even though the returned students are able to complete their degrees, they could still be kept from potential employment, as their results contained a message stating they had missed a semester because they broke the laws.

The atmosphere on campus, which Oun described as once being “motivating, inspiring and encouraging” is now tense and fear-filled for students like Darwish.

“It is very clear that the environment is very different than before,” said Darwish “I always felt like I could share my opinions with other students and tutors.”

Now, even though she said that foreign tutors “know their pain”, they are still unable to speak freely, leaving behind a “weird silence on campus”

Darwish said: “You know that young people are dying, and you can’t talk about it. It is odd and strange.”

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“My Valentine with Freedom” – 14th February 2011

“On the morning of 14th February, a very dear friend took me to get a hospital check up. Her boyfriend caught up with us on the way home to give my friend her Valentine’s bouquet, and because he was polite, he got me a rose too. Little did I know that that this rose will end up going to a funeral of a young protester the next day and little did I know that this year, my valentine was not going to be my loving husband, but rather, Freedom! For as long as it lasted, that is.

The following is a collection of memories and chapters of the life of a young Bahraini woman, who for the purpose of this piece, we will call Lulwa. Lulwa had an extraordinary experience, for one month February – March 2011, she could speak up her mind about every taboo in her homeland, Bahrain. Because history and people’s past always constitute and explain huge parts of our present, we visit Lulwa’s past before it leads to her present, as she thought it was the best and most efficient way to explain why she stands where she does right now.

Now, to Lulwa, I yield the floor:

It was a month, take a day or two, of my life, but over all my memories and my experiences, it has affected me the most.

I have an amazing family, lifelong loyal friends, a husband that I wouldn’t give up for the world, I am not poor, I received public sector education, I graduated with high grades from both school and university, I chose my own path in education and work, I have more or less what could be called a perfect life, but I never felt as free and satisfied as I did in that extremely short period of time. It gave me one thing, that my perfect life didn’t have before, I could raise my voice, open my heart and spill my brains out to the world, I had the freedom to speak up!

I lived in a country where if the whistle is blown on a corruption case, and it turned out royals or government friends were involved – as almost always was the case-, a gag rule was immediately issued, let alone if it was something political, like discrimination or unlawful accumulation of state property or “Bandergate”. If you had an online forum or a blog and the topics didn’t “fall in line” then you were in danger and your family may not have had a future. If you wanted to peacefully protest on the sidewalk with more than 3 people, then you had to obtain permission from the holy Ministry of Interior, which most likely would have been denied, and even when it was denied and you didn’t go on the protest, you expected to be watched and monitored, because you dared to request permission to speak. So people generally didn’t speak outside of their closed social circles, because the price to be paid was quite high. Disagreeing with your ruler was not in question, and if you did, you had to do it internally, for saying it out loud meant you were a trouble maker and, who knew, you could be recruiting terrorists! The next thing we knew we would have had all this youth trained to use their brain! And speak! Not only speak, but speak against their rulers and their country! That was outrageous of course. One had to only say beautiful things about their homeland; it was unbecoming of a young Arab, especially from the “perfect” Gulf States, to air the dirty laundry out.

So you see, when the revolution of 14 February began, it was a rush and a serenity that I seized to the maximum. A lot of my past wounds came rushing like hot blood in my veins. Scenes from my childhood and all the way to that moment in time, they were all I could think of, all I could see.

To put this into context, let me tell you about my family.  First a story, of my grandfather, who grew up poor and an orphan, because his father was murdered by orders of the Prince. His father was a religious man, popular in his village and well received by his people, he called for some form of political reform at the time, but before he realized his goal, he and his friend were beheaded while travelling on their donkeys. My grandmother –who lives with us at home- always told me of his greatness. She says he was a great leader and a poet too. She improved her reading in his library, for before, they only had Quran to read and learn reading through. She always laments that her brother-in-law, got most of the books, the library she treasured so much, she wanted us to read them to her again. She went blind after a complication in an eye surgery she had. My heart always hung on the first part of that story, my grandfather who was 7 or 9 (my father and grandmother disagree, and birth certificates, if they existed, weren’t so accurate at those times), how he had to live an orphan and work so young, just because he had a good man for a father, a man who didn’t sit silent and was pretty much a unique example for his time and in his environment. I treasured his memory, even though we’ve never met, and even though so young, I hated those who took him away too soon.

The same tyranny that was in place over my ancestors was there to give me my own experiences as a child. I was around 7 years old, an uprising was taking over Bahrain, demands to bring back the 1973 National Council and constitution, something that many activists and politicians were striving for since it was annulled by the government. That wasn’t of course how I understood it at the time, I was only seven! I understood there were demonstrations and that it was dangerous outside. I understood that there were government agents everywhere, so I mustn’t say anything out of line at school so that my dad doesn’t get hurt. I understood that my mother and one or two of us (my siblings and I) had to accompany dad when he went grocery shopping, because if he’s alone, he might be arrested- men and boys were taken off the streets at random and jailed without a trace.

I didn’t comprehend one thing though; my uncle of seeds wasn’t visiting anymore! He was my grandmother’s only brother, he always carried sunflower seeds in his pockets, always had some as a treat for us when he visited –which was often- and I loved him to pieces because he’s so funny and generous. I don’t remember his talks now, but I remember his laughs, how he made me laugh and the seeds. Grandmother laughing every single time I call him my uncle of the seeds. I found out soon after it happened, the riot police broke into his poor home, shot him in the head with a rubber bullet, which killed him shortly. My grandmother was sad for a good while, she turned me down a lot of the time when I asked her to tell me a fairytale- she wasn’t in the mood, she said. She’s a very strong woman, endured a lot of loss in her life, but time was unkind to her.

That same year, I woke up one day to some noise. I went straight to my parents’ room; my father was by the window, with tears in his eyes- I had never seen my father cry before. Mom was sitting on the sofa, I asked her quietly what’s wrong, but she told me to go to bed. A couple of hours later, my father entered the house. I ran downstairs to see him, he mimed to me to be quiet. He was approaching my grandmother, who was passing near the bottom of the stairs. He led her to sit, asked her to listen closely and not panic- naturally; she panicked, got snappy and told him to speak up. The next part made me freeze half way through the stairs- he said his cousin had been killed, grandmother screamed and demanded to be taken to his house, she didn’t believe it. He was her only sister’s son, the only thing left of her only sister, he had five kids, and he was a fisherman. That cousin of dad’s we knew very well. He always brought dad some of the special finds that he caught and he always made sure to visit his only aunt (my grandmother). He was kind and loyal, his kids were the same. One of his daughters, who is about four years older than me, would walk me home every day just to make sure I got there okay. She didn’t care that I slowed her and her friends down and never complained, on the contrary, she was sad when we moved to the other side of the village and she wasn’t able to walk me home anymore! I found out the details later, from listening to adults speaking; my father’s cousin was fishing at 5 am, with his son and others, riot police found them and shot them. He passed away because he got the bullet in his head; his son sustained a major injury in his shoulder. Years later, I could still hear my father speaking of his son getting follow up surgeries or repairing surgeries for his shoulder.

The times that followed continued to be dark. All my friends at school were facing similar losses. My aunt watched her husband arrested from home in the middle of the night, in front of her kids. He was in for six months. During those months, her son was arrested too for a few days. Riot police just walked up to their school bus and arrested a bunch at random. My aunt was a wreck; those were the longest few days in my life at the time. When her husband was released after six months in jail, things were beginning to calm down on the surface. Many others were released and the population was seemingly silenced. Political leaders and figures and their families were the only ones still being persecuted and/or targeted and more severely harassed in their daily life than others. Small demonstrations broke out every now and then, but no regular movement was sustained for long, at least from my point of view as a youngster in the middle of all that history.

The next big event I remember was when Shaikh Abdul Amir Al Jamri (main opposition leader at the time) was released from jail. People went out in numbers that I have never seen in my life up to that point. We weren’t allowed out as children, so we watched from the roof; the main street had thousands and thousands of people outside welcoming Shaikh Al Jamri, it was surreal to me, because things had been so silent for a while, then their leader came out and it was as if someone breathed life into all of these crowds. The next time that I saw such crowds, and even more, was years after this day, in 2006, when that great man passed away affected by his illness. I believe that was singlehandedly the largest funeral in Bahrain in my lifetime. Shaikh Al Jamri was a unique voice, a moderate man who called for unison of the people, for the various sectors of society to go hand in hand towards the future, rather than one stepping over the other, and thus that voice had to be assassinated. It’s true that he died of illness, but I, like many other Bahrainis, know that this illness was caused by the time he spent in jail as well as the condition of his release. Sheikh Al Jamri was forced to read a prepared speech in front of the late Prince, apologizing for his actions before his release. Of course, at the time, false tv confessions were quite trendy and people on the opposition weren’t shaken by them, except for this one by Shaikh Al Jamri, this one broke their hearts and angered them beyond belief.

The atrocities that took over Bahrain in previous decades are very similar to those of nowadays. The difference is in the way people are connected all over the world now and the abilities that people have to make their cause seen and heard. However, it is still a large challenge because of the sectarian divide the government is advocating and because of the incredibly frustrating effects of foreign policy.  Despite all this, I believe we are in a better place than we were before again because of the constant documentation of the majority of the events and details of the violations and crimes committed since the beginning of the Pearl Revolution. Some have been viewing the variety of voices and opinions as well as the immense amount of power and decision making being owned by youth as a threat, however, to me, that’s just the right foundation for democracy. We’re not supposed to all agree on one thing, but we’re supposed to respect each other despite those differences. Youth participation, involvement and leadership is just the cherry on top of that cake.

To be continued…

Photo of Sheikh Ali Jamri’s funeral from Bahrain Centre for Human Rights webpage

This is a short video with some shots of Bahrain during the 90s with a couple of testimonies from protesters who have been injured. Even if you don’t understand Arabic, the pictures bear a great resemblance to those from our present.

 

Family divisions

Bahrain seems to be at the mercy of the Al Khalifa division.  The Prime Minister is the hard-liner into severe punishment and Bedouin retribution.  The King and Prince, who have had little voice, support more democratic means of dealing with the situation. An excellent article describing the””increasing divisions within the Sunni royal family” can be found in the Independent.  Such is the situation with the Bahraini medics, who having been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in a military court last week, have now been told they will be tried again in a civilian court.

According to the New York Times, “The country’s attorney general, Ali Alboainain, told the state news agency that “no doctors or other medical personnel may be punished by reason of the fulfillment of their humanitarian duties or their political views” and that “pending the outcome of the retrials, the accused shall not be detained.”  However, within the hot and cold political climate, medics are a long way from feeling that their care of the injured will be seen for just what it was rather than a protracted game within the Al Khalifas and the international powers.  The following describes the experiences of one of the female medics in the past 5 months.

“Mrs Al Saffar was detained at the police station for a week, during which time she says she was made to stand for hours, blindfolded and handcuffed in extremely cold conditions. At one point she says she was taken to a room full of men who taunted her saying they would “have fun with her” if she did not cooperate.

“I never ever thought that my own blood, my own countrymen could do such things to me,” she said.  Bahraini authorities have maintained they would investigate any allegations of mistreatment in jail.  After a week in detention at the police station, Mrs Al Saffar was moved to a women’s jail, where she spent the next five months. During her time in prison, she believes she came across up to 250 female prisoners jailed in connection with the crackdown who had suffered some form of abuse.

Eventually on August 21, Mrs Al Saffar was released before a verdict had been reached in her case. She stepped out of jail with a shock of white hair, a shadow of her former self, having lost about 20 kilograms.

In the weeks that followed, all of the medics facing similar charges had been released pending their judgments. Then, on September 29, the group of 20 received sentences of between five and 15 years.

“I’m stronger now. My spine is stronger and harder. They will never be able to break it,” Mrs Al Saffar said.  She said the imprisonment has not changed her attitude about helping those in medical need. “Would I do this again? Yes. Again and again and again, to help when there is need.”  Mr. Alboainian said the retrial would be held in civilian court and would include a “full re-evaluation” of the evidence and a “full opportunity to present their defense.”  This is the message, she says, she will repeat during her upcoming retrial.

 

End the violations against students and educators in Bahrain

This video on YouTube was shot by an Australian film company in April.  It gives an excellent overview of what was happening in Bahrain at that time.  Now, six months later, those involved in the democracy movement in any way are still being harassed and persecuted.  One of those areas deeply affected is education.

World Teachers Day is the 5th October.  It “is an opportunity to appreciate the dedication and contributions of teachers worldwide. However in Bahrain, teachers are treated otherwise by being targeted and attacked for practicing their basic rights such as going on strike in solidarity with the demands of the pro-democracy movement. Since March 2011, hundreds of teachers have been detained, tortured, dismissed and subjected to unfair transfers from their schools.” This link gives the personal testimonies of a number of teachers and their experiences.

Please help to save the future of expelled students, reinstate sacked teachers and university faculty, and put an end to the violations against them in Bahrain by reading this article and signing this petition.

Over the past few months, the Bahraini regime has committed many violations against students and educators as a form of retribution to their participation and support of the pro-democracy movement. Since the declaration of a state of emergency in March, the authorities have conducted pre-dawn raids on the homes of many students and teachers, detaining some for months with no trial and depriving their families of any knowledge of their whereabouts. According to BCHR estimates, the authorities have arrested 78 students and more than 100 teachers although numbers are believed to
be higher. Today tens of students and teachers are still in detention and/or are awaiting trials. Teachers unionists have been sentenced to up to 15 years’ imprisonment and more than 7 students to minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment.

University Students:

More than 500 university students have been expelled for political reasons since March. In August, the King of Bahrain ordered all students to be reinstated, however the University of Bahrain (UOB)  and the Bahrain Polytechnic refused to allow more than 70 students back to their studies, putting their futures at risk. Students were subjected to aggressive interrogations where they were accused of going to the Pearl Roundabout, taking part in pro-democracy protests, and posting anti-government posts on their Facebook and Twitter pages, in a violation of their privacy and basic rights.

Despite clear violations, the universities have failed to reinstate some students, referring around 10 students to the public prosecutor which summoned them for investigation in a police station. This raises concerns over the students’ security as they could get arrested any time and face trials, especially since some students are currently awaiting military trials with more than 10 students in detention who have been subjected to torture. Recently 7 students accused with false charges of attempted murder, arson among other charges, in regards to the March 16 government-sponsored thug attack on UOB, have been sentenced to 15-18 years in detention.

University staff and faculty:
According to the cases submitted to BCHR, UOB has dismissed 117 of its faculty and staff, putting them through an investigation committee which questioned their activity outside university campus in a violation of their academic freedom. It also referred their cases to the security forces which raided their homes and interrogated them for hours while blindfolded and handcuffed, as well as subjecting their families to harassment and threats. They were detained for days and some still remain in detention. UOB has also dismissed and revoked the scholarships of its faculty who were pursuing their higher education abroad without even putting them through the official Interrogation Committee.

School students, Teachers and Teacher unionists
The Ministry of Education has subjected teachers to arrests from their homes and work places, as they were taken from schools alongside students to police stations where they were brutally beaten and subjected to physical and psychological torture. Teachers have also been put through an illegitimate investigation committee which resulted in salary cuts, suspensions, and dismissals. The Ministry has further carried out an attack on the Bahrain Teachers Association which acted as a teachers union following Act 1 from 2003 of the Civil Service Bureau which stated that unions are not to be formed within governmental institutions. The President of the teachers union Mahdi AbuDeeb, has been condemned 10 years in detention while the vice-president Jaleela Al-Salman has been condemned 5 years.

Many teachers are currently awaiting trial while dozens have been sacked only to be replaced by unqualified volunteers. This is resulting in the deterioration of the quality of education in Bahrain as the volunteers are high school graduates with no background in teaching whatsoever. The educational environment in schools is of high risk for both students and teachers who have been attacked by riot police and are constantly being attacked by the pro-government administration.
Students and teachers in Bahrain continue to face harassment and discrimination in retaliation to their support for the pro-democracy movement.

Testimonies from Bahrain: Arrested for treating the injured

I have copied this entire blogpost from the Amnesty International site.  I apologise for breaking copyright but this personal testimony needs to be read as it is – I don’t want to summarise of change any of this medical professional’s story.

This blog was written before its author and 19 other health workers were sentenced to prison by Bahrain’s National Safety Court of First Instance on 29 September.

I am a health worker at Salmaniya hospital, the main hospital in Bahrain. I’m married and have one child.

Before the Bahrain revolution I was living my life as any other working mother, focusing on my job and taking care of my small family.

But every person has a turning point in their life, an event that feels like a storm hitting their soul, and mine was 17 February 2011.

On that day we started to hear at 3 am that protesters at Pearl Roundabout were being attacked by the police. Soon, the injured and the dead began to arrive at the hospital.

Protester at the Pearl Roundabout

I saw a 60-year-old man with part of his head blown away. I was shocked and horrified and began to wonder what this man could have done that led to these injuries.

That day changed my life. I felt bad seeing my own people treated like animals.
Soon afterwards people began to be arrested and every night I would hug my son worrying whether it was my turn next.

In April, my fears came true and I was taken from my house by more than 30 masked men with guns in front of my son, whom I had to leave alone.

I was physically and emotionally abused, blindfolded and handcuffed. They beat me – with their hands and legs, with a hose, and gave me electric shocks.

They threatened to rape me. They threatened to kill me so that I would confess to false accusations. I was sexually harassed and humiliated.

I felt lonely, scared and ashamed. It felt like a nightmare that was happening over and over again. All the time I was worried about who was feeding my son and taking care of him.

After 22 days in prison they called me and they told me I was going to be released on bail.

When I saw my son we stood for a couple of minutes before he ran into my arms. I hugged him and cried.

The first weeks after my release were like a horror film. I felt that someone could come stab me in the back at any time. As soon as the sun set every day I started to cry and couldn’t sleep until the morning as I was scared I could be arrested again.

Then the horror of the military courts started. For the first few hearings we were in shock and couldn’t believe that the government was still insisting on going ahead with this drama and accusing us of totally unbelievable charges.

At the final hearing on 29 September they will sentence us. I believe that they know we are innocent but they will sentence us anyway. It is a political act so that others will get the message.

If I had the choice again, I would still do my duty at the hospital to save injured people regardless of their backgrounds.

I will always love my country and its people; they make me proud that I am from Bahrain.I am waiting patiently, I am a believer. I believe that truth always wins and will always be seen, no matter how long it takes. The only thing that makes me weak is not watching my son grow in front of me and the fear that he might forget me if I got imprisoned for many years.

May God help us medics and all Bahraini people.

It makes no sense

Well here’s the news!  A Bahraini military court has sentenced 15 medical professionals to 15 years in prison.  The court session lasted seven minutes and the defendants weren’t present.  “Bahraini authorities have accused the group of using Manama’s Salamaniya Medical Complex, where they worked, as a “control centre” for pro-reform protests at nearby GCC Roundabout (formerly Pearl Roundabout), in February and March. The defendants deny all the charges, which include incitement to hatred of the regime, occupying the hospital by force, stealing medicines and stockpiling arms at the hospital.” (Source)   If you would like to read the story of one of these doctors, have a look at the Guardian article in which Nada Daif describes how she was arrested and tortured – and the impact this has had on her family. These medical personel include the countries’ specialists so not only do the individuals and the families suffer, but the people of the country too.  It makes no sense.

Oh yes, and this isn’t all. “ A special court in Bahrain has upheld life sentences for eight Shi’ite opposition activists convicted of plotting to overthrow the minority Sunni-led government during anti-government protests earlier this year.  The state-run Bahrain News Agency said the court confirmed the sentences Wednesday, along with those of 13 other activists, who received prison sentences ranging from two years to 15 years on similar charges of sedition.” (Source)   In addition to all these cases, a man has been given the death sentence having been found guilty of running over a policeman during demonstrations.

Jalila-Al-Salman from 'Women's Views on News"

Jalila al-Salman is a teacher who has been given a three year prison sentence.  And her crime is?  She went once with other teachers to protest at the Pearl Roundabout.  She has already spent time in prison during which time she was beaten and threatened with rape.  Here is the story of her arrest and time in prison.

Now remember, Bahrain is still in the process of having a Commission of Inquiry investigate “the incidents that occurred in the Kingdom during the period of unrest in February and March 2011 and the consequences of these events”. (I found that quote on Wikipedia – this commission even has a Wikipedia page!)   The game is that you investigate and forgive on the one hand, and punish, harass and torture on the other.  The government tries to fool the world into believing that the country is back to normal and giving them enough positive news to blind them to the reality that nothing has changed.

The good news is that there are still many people and newspapers in the world who continue to be concerned about these atrocities in Bahrain.  In particular, the editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post which talks of “Bahrain’s unjustified and self-defeating repression” says it all.