On Friday, HRH the Duke of York opened a conference in London which will highlight what is claimed to be the “mutual respect and tolerance” enjoyed by those who live in Bahrain. We ask that he thinks again and do the right thing by withdrawing from the event.
Prince Andrew, who has made numerous visits to Bahrain, will deliver what will be seen by many as giving a Royal seal of approval for the regime there when he makes a keynote speech.
The Conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, London, will seek to portray Bahrain as an inclusive nation which is a shining example of religious and cultural tolerance across the Middle East. It is being organized by the Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Associations (BFEA), an organisation sympathetic to the regime and which is widely believed to be funded by the Bahrain government.
But this message of democracy, peace, harmony and unity could not be further from the dreadful reality faced by tens of thousands of ordinary Bahrainis, particularly those who make up the majority Shia population.
Indeed, this event can only be regarded as a desperate and naked PR campaign aimed at whitewashing the truth of a country where protests are violently crushed by the authorities, where democracy and human rights are non-existent and where torture, violence and sexual assault are used routinely against men, women and children who dare to speak up or protest against the Bahrain government.
Hundreds of children have been jailed for taking part in protests against the regime and are being held in adult jails with some even given the death sentence. In January this year, ten children were sentenced to a combined jail term of 215 years.
Adult prisoners who have protested against the Government are being routinely tortured and beaten and are denied access to medical facilities.
In addition there is clear evidence that the Government is collectively punishing the families of these detainees. People visiting family members in jail are routinely subjected to harassment and intimidation and undue restrictions on access.
Teachers in Bahrain have been subjected to suspension from work and cuts to their salary, they continue to face discrimination and harassment. The Government is importing teachers from other countries, despite there being 1,500 unemployed Bahraini teachers unable to get jobs because of their religious affiliation.
The leaders of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA) have been tortured, beaten and jailed for speaking out against the regime. BTA President Mahdi Abu Dheeb and BTA Vice President Jalila al-Salman were condemned in September 2011 by a military court after being forced to sign “confessions” while in detention. They were sentenced to ten and three years respectively.
Jalila is now out of prison but remains unable to get a job as a teacher while Mahdi’s health has deteriorated alarmingly. He is regularly beaten and has broken bones and other illnesses as a result of his incarceration. He does not receive any medical treatment and visits from family members are restricted.
I travelled to Bahrain in 2012 as part of the international delegation to the country organised by the International Trade Union Confederation and Education International.
We heard how Jalila had been taken from her home in the middle of the night by security forces, who raided her home in front of her terrified and screaming children. She was blindfolded, beaten, sexually assaulted and kept locked up in freezing temperatures. Mahdi’s daughter, Maryam, provided a moving and disturbing testimony of what had been happening to her father, including the many injuries he has sustained whilst in prison. Jalila, also the recipient of the 2013 NASUWT International Solidarity Award, has maintained regular contact with the NASUWT in the UK.
Teachers as educators are champions of human rights, democracy and equality for all. Attacks on the rights and freedoms of teachers can only be viewed as an attack on education and human rights.
The situation in Bahrain remains dire and the NASUWT has again this week urged UK Ministers to use their influence to relieve the suffering of ordinary people in Bahrain and to press for reforms that can secure a better future for ordinary people. And, we have made clear that the UK Government must not allow itself to be implicated in a promotional event which puts trade before the fundamental human rights of ordinary people.
The NASUWT will continue to press for the release of Mahdi Abu Dheeb and will continue to campaign for the freedom of the thousands of others who have suffered violence and intimidation or been locked up or denied the right to work, study or speak out because of sectarian hatred. We know that around the world, many others will also be speaking out for human rights in Bahrain.
We can only hope that, this week, Prince Andrew chooses his words carefully.