Bahrain’s Crackdown on Protest Extends to Academe, With Interrogations, Firings, and Expulsions
Courtesy of Jahromi family
Masaud Jahromi, who is on the faculty at Ahlia University, in Bahrain, was arrested on April 14, says his wife, Elham Shakeri, who is shown here with him and their son. He is one of a few academics in the country who have been detained and have lost contact with their families.
By David L. Wheeler
[Updated at 11:55 a.m. to include news of scholarship terminations in the United States.]
The Bahraini government is conducting sweeping retributions against academics believed to have participated in recent pro-democracy protests, firing professors and administrators and expelling students.
At the University of Bahrain, the largest public institution in the kingdom, a committee of pro-government academics is questioning other academics about their participation in protests and their loyalty to the existing regime. A few professors have been detained, and have had no contact with family members or lawyers since.
“There is undoubtedly an atmosphere of intimidation and fear at colleges and universities in Bahrain,” said Gwenn Okruhlik, a member of an academic-freedom committee for the Middle East Studies Association and a visiting scholar at Trinity University, in San Antonio, Tex., who has been compiling information about the situation.
On Wednesday, daily newspapers in Bahrain reported that, with the prime minister’s authorization, the Ministry of Education was forming a committee to review the political activities of students with scholarships and to suspend the scholarships of students who have not been loyal to the government. In Britain, Bahraini students who attended sympathy protests there told The Guardian that their stipends and tuition payments have been stopped and that the government has contacted their families about their activities.
Marcia C. Inhorn, a professor of anthropology at Yale University and a member of the Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association, said that Bahraini students in the United States were also losing their scholarships. (She was reluctant to name the institutions where that is happening because so few Bahraini students are in the United States that their identities would be at risk of being revealed and their families could be harassed.)
The terminations of scholarships and the firings of academics are part of a larger campaign of retribution in Bahrain, an archipelago whose main island is connected by a long causeway to Saudi Arabia, following a month of demonstrations in the capital city of Al Manamah. The protests ended on March 16 when security forces cleared demonstrators from an area known as the Pearl Roundabout. The campaign of retribution, human-rights activists say, is being focused by the Sunni Muslim-led government on the majority Shiite Muslim population, and many of the fired academics are Shiite.
Telephone calls and an e-mail message to the Bahraini Embassy in Washington were not returned. The embassy’s Web page expresses pride in Bahraini higher education: “As Bahrain’s investment grows, so too will opportunities for international investors to establish world-class academic and training facilities in the kingdom.”
E-mails, text messages, and Facebook posts from those who have been fired and expelled provide details on the retributions. In an e-mail to colleagues and human-rights groups, Abdulla Alderazi, a lecturer at the University of Bahrain who is also the secretary general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, wrote: “The University of Bahrain has just informed me that I have been stopped from lecturing today, 17th of April, 2011, until a final decision is taken by the UOB interrogation committee, which [it] seems will not be positive.”
A student at a private university who has been expelled for pro-democracy comments on television said in an e-mail that he was about to graduate, and will now lose the $17,000 he has invested in his education.
Faculty members who have been questioned by the University of Bahrain committee said that their loyalty to the existing government was scrutinized: “First, I thought questions will be limited to what have happened in university,” wrote one person, who requested that his identity be protected. “But it was about my political views.” Questions focused on what political groups those being interviewed belonged to, what comments they had made in their Facebook accounts, what television channels they watched, and what protests they might have participated in. An attack made on the university on March 13 by a group of outsiders that included at least two police officers was used as a pretext for accusing protesters of vandalism, students who were at the scene of the attack said.
The exact number of those who have been fired or expelled is difficult to determine. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, whose members largely operate on the Internet under the cloak of anonymity to avoid being arrested themselves, has said that 50 students have been expelled. At the Ministry of Education, 111 civil servants have been fired, and referred for legal action, although their job roles are not clear, according to Ms. Okruhlik. Those firings may have been in retribution for a call for a strike. A government news agency reported that 19 faculty members and 25 administrators were fired at the University of Bahrain. Bahrain state television reported that 120 students at the University of Bahrain were expelled and 10 suspended for a year, and the government’s most recent statement, released on Tuesday, said that a total of 200 employees and students at the University of Bahrain had been punished.
The anti-Shiite retribution, said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, has taken a “sinister turn” in recent days with the government’s bulldozing of Shiite mosques and community centers. On Monday, unidentified assailants hurled tear-gas grenades at the home of Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and its only member who openly identifies himself, who has helped to document the retribution against the academics. Checkpoints dot the island, police officers wear balaclava masks concealing their identity, and a late-evening curfew limits the restaurant and club activity that once drew customers from around the Gulf.
Many expelled students and family members of fired and detained faculty members are pleading for political pressure from the West. “My husband, Dr. Masaud Jahromi, chairman of the engineering department at Ahlia University, in Bahrain, was arrested at 2:30 a.m. on 14th April 2011; in a frightening manner,” wrote Elham Shakeri in an e-mail. “Still after one week of his capture we are unaware of him and his health. We are really hopeless and defenseless these days.”