4 June 2012

By Brian Dooley Human Rights Defenders

Last year we reported on the Bahraini government’s inept handling of student dissent and its violations of students’ rights to free speech. Dozens of students were arrested and hundreds more expelled following large-scale peaceful protests calling for democratic reform in the Bahrain. These students faced aggressive interrogations about their possible participation in political protests and some were even asked to identify classmates in photos of demonstrations that appeared on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Since then, the dismissed students have mostly been reinstated, albeit after long interruptions in their education. Upon returning, they had to sign restrictive ‘codes of conduct’. But the practice of punishing students for apparent criticism of the Bahrain regime appears to be returning. Alyaa Mohammed is a 21 year-old business management student at the University of Bahrain (UoB), where she’s in her third year.

“I’m part of something called the UoB youth delegation – it’s basically a group of students from different colleges who get to represent UoB in internal and external conferences, inside and outside Bahrain,” she told Human Rights First. “We often meet Bahraini ministers and other government officials.”

“In January, which is our spring break, I started as an intern at a law office. The second week of the break, the delegation manager called me to say I wasn’t allowed to undertake any more youth delegation activities. Then in March I was called in for questioning at the university, asking me if I wrote the phrase ‘Down with Hamad’ on my BlackBerry Messenger in January.”

Bahrain is governed by a family monarchy headed by King Hamad. He has the power to change the constitution when he wishes, and is the head of an unelected government. Members of his family typically fill a majority of cabinet posts, and his uncle has been Bahrain’s unelected prime minister for the last 41 years. “Down Hamad” is a popular phrase among those calling for democratic reform in Bahrain.

Alyaa says she wrote the phrase but it referred to her boss at the law firm where she was interning, whose name was also Hamad. “I said because I was mad with my boss because he made us stay late on my first day there. I showed them a letter confirming my boss’s name and when I worked there.”

She said there were three university staff who questioned her. “I had two formal questioning sessions and one informal,” she said. “They told me there was no need for me to bring a lawyer, but kept me there for an hour that first session, just asking the same questions over and over. The entire time they were blaming me for spreading hate, trying to split the student delegation and planting hatred in the hearts of others.” She says she was questioned again on April 4th and April 5th.

“According to the rules they have to wrap up this sort of investigation within a month, so by early May when they hadn’t contacted me again I thought it was over. Then last week they told me to come and pick up a letter saying I’d been suspended for a semester. In their letter they say my ‘crime’ was to write ‘Phrases that insult His Majesty the King’ on my mobile phone and that I sent them to my female colleagues.”

In fact, Alyaa should not be punished whether she was disgruntled with either the King of Bahrain or her demanding boss. The Bahraini government has ratified without reservation both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 19 of the ICCPR says that states cannot interfere with the right to political opinion, while Article 13 of the ICESCR frames education as a right that belongs to everyone, allowing every to “participate effectively in a free society.” It states that where higher education is available, it must be “equally accessible to all on the basis of capacity,” and that “discrimination on the basis of political opinion in availability of education is impermissible.”

Bahrain is keen to present an image of reform to the international community, to show that it accepts and is addressing its mistakes from last year. Continuing to punish students for what they write on their mobile phones exposes the reality behind the government’s expensive PR campaigns. “I will have to repeat the whole course all over again even though I only had my exams left to do, and I’m worried that my record will be marked as ‘Withdrew with Failure,’ Alyaa told Human Rights First. Targeting students in this way encourages a climate of fear at the university. “I thought about sending you a picture of myself to go with this piece, but I don’t think it’s wise because some students might recognize me and try to harm me since they think that they are allowed to do that in my country,” she said.

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