8-9-2011By Stephanie El Rayess
Human Rights Defenders
“The mere fact that the king has appointed this commission and the Interior Ministry is cooperating shows me things have changed,” Cherif Bassiouni, head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, told Reuters on Thursday. But things have not changed enough for many Bahraini teachers, students and activists.
Jalila al Salman, teacher and Vice-President of the Bahrain Teacher’s Association (BTA), is still forgotten in prison. She was arrested in March for her alleged role in coordinating a teachers’ strike along with other BTA board members. Jalila decided to begin a hunger strike last week to demand her freedom and to protest her continuing torture and ill treatment while in custody. Jalila is not alone. She is joined by Roula al-Saffar, also awaiting trial in connection with the February and March protests. Roula, a cancer survivor and founder of the National Association for Cancer Awareness, is Head of Bahrain Nursing Society and Assistant Professor at the College of Health Sciences. She is accused of publicly defaming officials from the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main public hospital in Bahrain where she is the Head of Nursing. She has repeatedly denied the charges against her.
Other female detainees are also serving sentences in harsh conditions. Mariam Mohamed Abdulla and Reem Ahmed Hilal, two young female students of the Bahrain Institute, were sentenced on April 1 for “having illegal messages or slogans on their phones when searched at a military checkpoint,” according to an urgent appeal Human Rights First (HRF) received. They had exchanged messages that were forwarded to them on their Blackberry phones. Mariam is yet to be released despite serving her three-month term, which, according to her mother, is causing her severe distress. As for Reem, she was sentenced to seven months in prison and is reportedly suffering from humiliating and degrading treatment.
The situation of students has not changed enough either. The Bahraini government had punished students who participated in protests by revoking their scholarships. Recently, honor students and their parents have been worried about the distribution of academic awards and scholarships for the 2011- 2012 school year. The names of the recipients of the scholarships were not officially announced, and the selection criteria were not made clear, according to reports sent to HRF. The Ministry of Education responded to “allegations of favoritism, sectarian abuse and cover-up. “The ministry said it followed Arab and international standards in selecting qualified candidates for scholarships based on their academic performance and their personality traits reflected in personal interviews conducted by specialists trained by the Bahrain Institute of Public Administration, insisting that there were no questions about any student’s sect or “sectarian remarks.” Human rights activists are voicing their concern over using scholarships as political tools to pressure students, warning about the negative effect of the increasing suspicion on the credibility of Bahrain’s educational system.
Bahraini women activists are still speaking out about human rights violations. Mariam al Khawaja, Head of Foreign Relations Office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, recently tweeted “Student Abdulhadi Nabeel Diwani was arrested upon return from his studies in the UAE, arrests are still ongoing.” In another recent tweet, a leading female activist, “angryarabia”, said that it is great that Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Investigation caused the release of 41 people as well as the suspension of a police chief and several officers as Bassioni mentioned in his interview with Reuters, but wondered “Is the price the truth?”.
Bassiouni said that about 300 people remain in detention over the widespread demonstrations earlier this year and that he hoped to secure the release of a further 150 in coming days. The release of several detainees -Matar Matar, the youngest member of the Bahraini parliament whose wife spoke to al-Jazeera about her fears ; Jawad Fairooz, who like Matar was a member of al-Wefaq’s parliamentary bloc that resigned following the government’s crackdown on protestors in February, and Mohammed al-Tajir, a human rights lawyer who has defended a number of activists – is an indication of the “good faith” of the Interior Ministry Bassiouni commended. But it is hard to see why these people were arrested or detained in the first place, and so their release – while welcome – should not be seen as a substitute for investigating and prosecuting those who have committed torture.