For Three Bahraini Medical Students, a Lesson in Repression
By Christiana Renfro
Since the Bahraini uprising began in February of 2011, we’ve documented an array of human rights violations perpetrated by the regime against civilians and activists. These range from illegal detention and imprisonment to torture and killings. There is some audacity too, presumably encouraged by impunity. For instance, the regime chose to press charges against leading activist Mohammed Al Tajer—tortured in police custody—on the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
These abuses, however, do not represent the full spectrum of how arbitrary government repression affects the lives of Bahrainis. Beyond torture and killing are more subtle methods of persecution, as three Bahraini medical students—ex-medical students, at least for the moment—could attest.
In February of 2011, Zainab Mohammed Maklooq, Aala’a Sayed Shubber Mosin Majed, and Zahra’a Salman Mohammed Zabar, were medical students enrolled at Al Damman University, a former branch of King Faisal University in Damman, the capital of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. All had received scholarships to attend the school based on exceptional grades. Zainab and Aala’a were in the last semester of their sixth year, with only a few months left to graduate, while Zahra’a was in her fifth year.
As the protests began, the three students were denied entry into Bahrain to visit their families on the weekends, as they had previously done. Ala’a and Zainab managed to enter the country for one weekend as the crackdown intensified in March 2011; Zahra’a stayed in Saudi for fear she wouldn’t be able to get back to finish her exams.
On March 21, two days after Aala’a and Zainab returned to school, all three students were asked to pack their personal belongings and leave Saudi Arabia immediately, with no explanation. When they returned to their flat, according to their testimony, fifty masked policemen were waiting. They said the police turned off their cell phones, ordered them into a van, and drove them to a police station on the nearby King Fahd Highway. In an interrogation room, according to written testimony provided to HRF, police informed them that they had lost their scholarships, that their years of study would be invalidated, and that they would be sentenced to life in prison for their crimes.
What crimes, exactly? The next day, according to their testimony, they were informed by the Public Prosecution that they would be charged with defaming government leaders, inciting hatred against the regime, organizing protests at the university, and providing misleading information to foreign television stations. Zainab, Aala’a, and Zahra’a were told that they would be held for a week while evidence was gathered; in fact, they spent three weeks in custody, until April 13—all this while Zainab was in her first trimester of pregnancy.
With the government evidently lacking proof of any supposed wrongdoing, the three students were suddenly released, without explanation, after they were ordered to sign a statement pledging their loyalty to the Bahraini regime. The case, they believed, was closed. On June 2, however, Aala’a and Zahra’a were ordered back to court, accused of breaching public security by protesting at Pearl Roundabout in Manama back in March. After several weeks of court sessions, they were acquitted and released once again.
Yet the students’ troubles are far from over. Upon attempting to return to university, they were stopped on the highway to Saudi Arabia and informed they were no longer allowed into the country. Neither Al-Damman University nor any of the relevant Bahraini ministries has aided in their attempts to finish their education. As the students conclude, “We do not know how to resolve our complicated problem.”
They hope to someday complete their degrees, either at Al Damman or another university, possibly abroad. Their long-term goal is even more ambitious: to found an organization to protect medical students from illegal detention and other human rights abuses.