We write you this letter to express our concern over the state of academic freedom in Bahrain. Ongoing cases of arrest, imprisonment, and harassment point to a disturbing record of threats to scholars and students in your country. We want to highlight some of the worst cases here, and request that your government take action to ensure that Bahrain is a safe environment for academic freedom and the peaceful expression of dissent.
We are extremely concerned about the trial and imprisonment of Mahdi ‘Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, a board member of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association, who was arrested on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime” and “calling to overthrow and change the regime by force” following the group’s call for a teacher strike in March 2011. Amnesty International has expressed serious concerns about Mahdi’s health and fears that he may die in prison: during a hearing in December 2011, he showed clear signs of having been beaten. On October 21, 2012, an appeals court upheld his guilty verdict with a prison sentence five years. His multiple appearances before the National Safety Court of First Instance, a military court, are a breach of his right to fair trial before an independent and impartial court.
At an April 2, 2012, hearing, Mahdi Abu Dheeb testified that he was tortured. During appeals, judges rejected his lawyer’s requests for a release on bail due to his poor health, despite the fact that the forensic team to which the judge referred him for medical examination had yet to be appointed.
We respectfully urge you to investigate the allegations of torture and mistreatment, the trial proceedings in which no evidence was presented that they advocated violence, and the violation of his citizen rights by appearing before a military court. If Mahdi Abu Dheeb was arrested because of his leadership of the Bahrain Teachers Association and the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, he should be immediately and unconditionally released, and all charges against him should be dropped.
We are also extremely concerned about the sentence of life imprisonment given on June 22, 2011, to Dr. Abdul-Jalil al-Singace, the chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Haq Movement, who had been arrested first at Manama Airport on the morning of August 13, 2010, when returning to Bahrain after a visit to London, and again on March 17, 2011, having been released less than a month earlier, on February 23. He has been given only limited access to legal counsel, and his lawyer was not allowed to be present during the questioning of the prosecution.
Dr. al-Singace has described to his lawyer the brutal torture he endured at the hands of the Bahraini authorities: He was held in solitary confinement for a fortnight; his crutches and wheelchair were taken away from him, forcing him to stand for hours on one leg because of the paralysis in his other leg; he was stripped naked and beaten repeatedly; electric shock devices were attached to his ears and nipples; he was repeatedly slapped across the face and ears, causing him to partially lose his hearing; he was forced to listen to the screaming of other prisoners being tortured; and he was forced to sign statements written by the authorities.
In addition to these scholars, several students remain in prison for their involvement in protests. Student activist Ahmed Aoun was arrested by authorities when he sought treatment at a hospital following an eye injury inflicted by police during protests on May 13, 2012. Five students were sentenced to 15 years in prison at a trial on March 5, 2012, following involvement in pro-democracy demonstrations, including Jawad al-Mahary, Shawqi Radhi, Jassim al Hulaini, Jassim al-Mukhodher, and Yousif Ahmed. According to a report from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, these students were subject to torture during their detention. Radhi was reportedly unable to stand during his appearance before the military court as the result of this maltreatment. We call on your government to immediately put an end to the practice of torture and the ill treatment of prisoners in Bahrain, and investigate those responsible for this mistreatment.
The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 9, 1998, states that everyone has the right “freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Similarly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a signatory, states that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writingor in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." We urge the Bahraini government to take the necessary steps to ensure an environment of academic freedom and to release these and other scholars who have been imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their views.
We welcome your comments on the issues raised in this letter.