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September 20, 2011

Bahraini Students Uncertain Over Future

Universities across Bahrain have opened for the new academic year, but a number of students who support the nation’s pro-democracy movement say various obstacles are preventing them from entering the classroom.

Roughly 400 students from different universities were expelled for participating in “unauthorized protests” after widespread civil unrest broke out in Bahrain in February.

In a gesture of reconciliation, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced last month that those who had been dismissed should be allowed to resume their studies. However, scores of young Bahrainis have yet to be reinstated.

At Bahrain Polytechnic, 31 expelled undergraduates are still waiting to return to class, including a second-year student who asked to be identified only as T.A. “We’re fighting for our future. We need to create our future,” he said.

In an initial statement, Bahrain Polytechnic said that in accordance with the law, it had disciplined those who had “offended the political leaders of the kingdom,” even though all of the illegal activities took place off campus.

Some of T.A.’s peers were punished for simply posting information criticizing the government on social media sites.  He says the king’s speech added to their frustration. “The way he said that we are forgiven. We are forgiven for our mistakes, but we didn’t do anything wrong. We should return [to studying] no matter what," said T.A.

In defense of the expulsions, Ministry of Education spokeswoman Lubna Selaibekh recently said that those penalized were aware of the rules and regulations in place.

She also pointed out that students were given ample time to defend their behavior before action was taken against them.

Rights groups, however, have repeatedly criticized actions by the authorities.

Wrongful dismissal

Sa'id Boumedouha from Amnesty International says many university staff, including lecturers, have been wrongly dismissed. “They’re being unfairly treated, and for what? For taking part in peaceful demonstrations. It is a concern for us,” said Boumedouha.

Like in most regional uprisings, young people in Bahrain have played a pivotal role in encouraging the public to protest.

Now, in a move to dissuade the youth from future displays of discontent, the government is making returning students promise to abstain from political activities in order to re-enroll.

Code of conduct

The code of conduct agreement at the University of Bahrain requires signees to pledge their “complete loyalty” to the king.

A number of students, including a female at UOB who wished to remain anonymous, have opted out of the agreement, saying it is more important for them to participate in the pro-democracy movement than continue studying.

“If the movement stops, everything will be back to zero. Not to zero, to negative,” she said.

Shi’ite Muslims make up the majority of Bahrain’s opposition supporters and say they are treated like second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni minority. They have been calling for more rights and for the introduction of a constitutional monarchy.

The government has accused the protesters of taking directions from Shi’ite powerhouse Iran, a claim the protesters deny.

'Increasing segregation'

In addition to the expelled students, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights says about 2,500 mostly Shi’ite employees have been fired from their jobs in various sectors because of their political views.

The group’s president, Nabeel Rajab, says the nation is becoming increasingly segregated.

“This is part of sectarian cleansing that the government is practicing against the Shi’ite people in all levels - their living, businesses, studies, education, everywhere. They are working on marginalizing the Shi’ite in all decision-making place[s]. So they don’t want to see more graduated people from the Shi’ite community,” said Rajab.

Some Shi’ites who were not expelled from university have withdrawn themselves, citing a politicized and hostile campus environment.

A third-year student at UOB, who asked to have his identity kept secret, says the current climate makes it difficult for many young Shi’ites to plan for the future. “Protesting is our future, we have to finish what we started and then we can study, we can work, we can do anything,” he said.

In July, the government opened a national dialogue in a bid to restore confidence in the kingdom’s commitment to work out its troubles. However, the main opposition al-Wefaq party quit the talks, saying its demands had been ignored.

Rights groups say more than 40 people have been killed since protesting began over seven months ago.  More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested.  Six university students remain in custody.

Both the Ministry of Education and Bahrain Polytechnic could not be reached for comments despite repeated attempts.

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