Bahrain democracy protests flare; unions protest repression

On the eve of the first anniversary of their pro-democracy uprising, thousands of Bahrainis rallied Monday in Manama, the capital city, to commemorate the beginning of their struggle. After the rally, some of the protestors marched from the rally site to the Pearl Roundabout in the heart of city where last year’s rebellion against the country’s monarchy broke out. Police tried to stop them, and the marchers fought back.

Demonstrations and rallies aimed at pressuring the government to implement reforms have been taking place since June when the government lifted an emergency decree issued during the peak of the uprising. Monday’s demonstrations were an escalation of those protests. The Wall Street Journal reports that “Monday’s escalation underscores how little has changed since February 14, 2011 when demonstrators, inspired by protests elsewhere in the Arab world, called for better jobs and more rights.”

The Bahraini government has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the pro-democracy movement. On one hand, its has cracked down hard on movement leaders; on the other, hand it has implemented some reconciliation measures recommended by an international panel.

Among those attending Monday’s rally was Rula al Saffar, president of the Bahrain Nurses Association, the national nurses union. Al Saffar was one of 47 health care workers arrested, detained, and in some cases tortured for treating pro-democracy demonstrators wounded in clashes with the police and foreign troops that intervened on behalf of the monarchy.

Al Saffar was also one of 20 doctors, nurses, and other health care workers, who last September were tried by a special military court and received prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. Al Saffar and her fellow detainees were let out on bail pending a review of their case by an appeals court. A hearing on their appeal is scheduled to take place on February 27.

Not at the rally was Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, president of the Bahraini Teachers Association who along with teachers’ union vice-president Jalila al-Salman was arrested last April. According Amnesty International, “they appear to have been targeted solely for their leadership of the BTA and for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”

In September, the two were sentenced to prison by a military court, Mahdi Abu Dheeb for ten years and an al-Salman to three.  Al-Salman was released on bond pending her appeal, but Mahdi Abu Dheeb remains in jail and recently began a hunger strike to protest his detention.

Education International, a worldwide coalition of teachers’ unions, has begun a campaign to win his release and have all charges dropped. It reports that Mahdi Abu Dheeb’s confession which was the basis of his conviction was obtained by torture.

On Monday, Francine Lawrence, executive vice-president of the American Teachers Federation, hand-delivered a letter to the Bahraini Embassy calling for Mahdi Abu Dheeb’s release.

The letter also said that the AFT, which has 1.5 million members, was strongly concerned about the “(Bahraini) government’s treatment of teachers, health care workers and their union leaders in the aftermath of the Feb. 14, 2011, demonstrations in Bahrain.”

“We are appalled that these dedicated public servants, who belong to quintessentially peaceful professions, who teach your children and help the sick and infirm, would face such consequences for exercising their rights as citizens,” the letter said. “The reports of the use of torture against many of the arrested protesters as confirmed by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry shocked Americans.”

While taking a hard line against leaders of the uprising, the government has implemented some recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an international panel that convened last year to investigate the upheaval and recommend ways to reconcile the differences between the two sides.

One recommendation is that all companies, including those owned by the government, rehire without conditions workers fired for striking during the uprising. So far, 2,283 of the 2,462 fired workers have either gotten their jobs back or voluntarily quit. But companies are not fully complying with the government’s order. Many of those rehired have been demoted or faced other disciplinary action.

Furthermore, 179 still have not been reinstated. Among those who have not been reinstated, 55 are local union leaders and six national union leaders.

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