Arrested, tortured, but not silenced

10th May 2013 at 01:00
Bahraini union vice-president Jalila al-Salman was persecuted and imprisoned for supporting a teachers' strike during the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring. She tells Kerra Maddern why she is determined to continue speaking out, even at the risk of her own freedom

They came in the middle of the night. The security officers burst into the house of Jalila al-Salman, a highly respected assistant principal, dragged her from her bed and took her away without explanation. Her husband and three children looked on helplessly.

Al-Salman is a leading member of a teaching union in the Kingdom of Bahrain - an island nation in the Persian Gulf. Her "crime" was that she had supported a call to strike during a period of pro-democracy protests in 2011, part of the Arab Spring.

The dedicated teacher, well regarded by ministry of education officials, was arrested and locked up in a cold cell. She was blindfolded and, she says, tortured and threatened with sexual assault. This was just the start of a two-year ordeal in which she has been arrested and jailed three times, and has spent a total of six months behind bars.

Al-Salman is now free - for the time being - but has lost her job and lives in constant fear of the knock at the door. Yet far from being cowed by the state's brutal attempt to silence her, al-Salman has become an international campaigner, travelling the world to tell her story to colleagues, politicians and union members.

But it is not just about her. Al-Salman is fighting for other teachers - and students - jailed in Bahrain, including Mahdi `Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, president of the now-banned Bahrain Teachers' Association, of which al- Salman is vice-president.

Al-Salman was in the UK this spring, spreading the word at meetings, conferences and union gatherings.

"I'm going to continue what I'm doing," she explains, taking a moment out of her busy schedule to speak to TES. "I will never give up. I will stop only when all my colleagues are out of prison and also the 200 students I estimate are (in) there."

The anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain started on 14 February 2011, known as the Day of Rage. The teaching profession - as is so often the case in pro-democracy campaigns around the world - played a leading role, calling for greater civil liberties and more religious freedoms.

The protest continued almost without a break and, in mid March, the king imposed martial law and a state of emergency. Dozens of protesters were reported killed, with hundreds more arrested and given long prison sentences.

Interrogated and beaten

Al-Salman's personal ordeal began on 29 March 2011 when she woke to find "around 50" security officers in her home. "They went through the whole house, terrifying my family. It is a very bad memory. I didn't know where they were going to take me," she recalls.

Given no reason for her arrest, al-Salman was taken to the Criminal Investigation Directorate where she was subjected to "continuous torture and interrogation" and kept in solitary confinement.

Police told her they had been instructed to do whatever they needed to extract confessions for far more dramatic "crimes" than being part of a union or voicing support for strikes, she says.

After 10 days she was transferred to a women's detention centre, where she spent eight days in a freezing cell, again in solitary confinement. She was not allowed to use the toilet or pray. She was forced to stand in her 2 sq m cell. If she tried to sit down she was beaten. She was also deprived of sleep; if she dropped off she was woken up and made to listen to the sounds of other people being tortured. Interrogators repeatedly tried to make links between her and the organisers of the uprising, but without success. "Whatever question they asked I didn't have an answer for them because I didn't do what they said," she explains. "They forced me to sign a confession while I was blindfolded."

Al-Salman had no contact with the outside world for four months. The authorities also forced her to make a filmed confession. "They told me: `If you forget what we have done we can remind you'," she says. "I told them I'd say whatever they wanted me to say."

After this, al-Salman was taken to a military prosecutor, where she was questioned for 15 hours without a break and with no access to a lawyer. Then, suddenly, she was asked to change her clothes and told she would be taken somewhere else - but not told where. "I found myself in a military court. It was the first time I had seen my family for a very long time, and the first time I had heard the charges against me."

Here, she was also reunited with Abu Dheeb. "We laughed at what was being said because it was so ridiculous, and the judge told us off. There were 12 charges, each one carrying a sentence of five to 10 years."

These allegations included using their positions as vice-president and president of the Bahrain Teachers' Association to call for a strike by teachers, "halting the educational process, inciting hatred of the regime and attempting to overthrow the ruling system by force".


After five months in detention, al-Salman, who maintains that the only allegation that is factually correct is that she did call for the three- day strike, was sentenced to three years in prison by the military court, later reduced to six months. Abu Dheeb was sentenced to 10 years, later reduced to five years. He has been denied medical treatment, despite worsening health. Al-Salman, who had been a teacher for 25 years, was banned from the classroom.

She is quick to point out that she and other teachers are also distressed by the treatment of thousands of students in Bahrain, many of whom have been expelled from school and forced to sign a loyalty pledge to the government.

After her release in August 2011, al-Salman made a short speech to teachers, telling them they should share their experiences of what they were going through. This prompted another spell in jail that was only ended, she believes, thanks to international pressure. She was arrested for a third time in November last year and held in captivity for a short period.

Despite the extraordinary two years she has endured, she says she is determined to carry on campaigning to free her friends and colleagues from jail.

There are about 200 schools and 14,000 teachers in Bahrain, a small country with a population of 1.3 million. Before being shut down, the Bahrain Teachers' Association had about 9,000 members.

Like the majority of the population, most teachers are Shiite Muslims while the ruling regime is Sunni. It is this religious divide that is at the heart of many of the country's tensions. For example, schools have a Sunni-based Islamic studies curriculum that is mandatory for all students. This has been condemned by international observers, who criticised the absence of the Shia Islamic tradition in the curriculum and reported that Shia teachers were discouraged from including any materials about Shia traditions or practices.

Untrained volunteers

Since the uprising, things have got even worse. Al-Salman is deeply concerned about the damaging effect the government's repressive policies are having on education in Bahrain. Since the protests she estimates that the education minister has placed about 3,000 volunteers who are politically sympathetic to the government in schools. Many do not have even school-leaving qualifications, al-Salman claims. One volunteer interviewed by the Bahraini media said she was 70 and could not read or write but planned to tell the children stories.

"Some volunteers have been in school only until grades 7 or 8 (aged 12 or 13) and they are teaching grade 4 (aged 9) English. The outcomes in schools have been affected - achievement is down," al-Salman says.

Meanwhile, native teachers are being demoted, transferred to different workplaces and not being paid, al-Salman says. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that this year 500 have applied for early retirement. According to al-Salman, this is a "big problem" for the authorities.

Dr Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, one of the largest British teaching unions, has long had concerns over the situation in Bahrain. He has repeatedly highlighted the issue to the press and called for Western governments to use their influence to do something about it.

Roach and al-Salman had a "positive" meeting with officials from the UK government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office last month. However, he says: "Words are fine, but we need action. Wrongs need to be put right. It is now two years since Mahdi Abu Dheeb was imprisoned and al-Salman fears all the time that she will be rounded up by the authorities. We will continue to remind the authorities that we're watching them."

As the demonstrations began to tail off in June 2011, the King of Bahrain ordered an independent investigation, which found that many detainees had been tortured to extract confessions and had suffered physical and psychological abuse. Very quickly the authorities claimed to have adopted 95 per cent of the inquiry's recommendations.

However, Roach says the word on the street is that "very few, if any" changes have been made.

"We hear reports that new teachers are able to train in just one institution in Bahrain now, and that the institution is seeking not only to give them pedagogical skills but also to indoctrinate them in what is deemed to be acceptable practice," he adds.

Meanwhile, as she continues her struggle to improve human rights in Bahrain, al-Salman also has a personal battle to win: she is trying to have her conviction overturned on appeal.

She also wants to return to teaching. "I loved my job and I was well known for my work, even among people in the ministry of education," she says. "I would be glad to go back. It's my right."

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