'We heard they brought in students to beat teachers'

International group appeals on behalf of Bahraini dissidents

Kerra Maddern

Just 18 months ago, teachers in Bahrain were enjoying a pay rise as ministers in the small, Middle Eastern island nation tried to ensure that the profession was seen as "noble".

But since the Arab Spring many teachers have suffered imprisonment and made claims of torture as the same government cracks down on political dissent. Teachers have reported being subjected to physical and mental abuse - some even carried out by pupils - for being involved in the protests that have taken place in the country since early 2011.

Mahdi Issa Abu Dheeb, president of the Bahraini Teachers' Association (BTA), is one of the most high-profile victims. He was imprisoned for taking part in the recent uprising, and the BTA has now been banned.

Last week an international trade union delegation - which included Patrick Roach (pictured right), deputy general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union - travelled to Bahrain to call for his release.

"We told the deputy prime minister this situation was unacceptable," Mr Roach said. "We also heard reports from other teachers that the authorities had brought in students to beat teachers. They were told they could effectively get their own back.

"The eyes of the world seem to have left the country and we are concerned this means the crackdown will intensify."

Mr Abu Dheeb was until recently denied medical treatment for his broken bones, diabetes and kidney problems, it is claimed. Only his immediate family are permitted to visit him, but his daughter Maryam has worked to spread the word internationally about his case.

Mr Roach was travelling with Education International, which represents teacher organisations around the world. They had been promised a meeting with the King of Bahrain, but were told after arriving in the country that it would not go ahead. Instead they met the deputy prime minister, Shaikh Khalid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, and the labour minister, Jameel Humaidan.

Mr Roach's delegation also campaigned against the conviction of BTA vice-president Jalila Al Salman, who they say has experienced brutal treatment. She has been bailed by the Bahraini authorities and is now trying to raise awareness in the international community about what has happened to protesters.

Ms Al Salman told Mr Roach that she had been arrested in the middle of the night by armed security forces, handcuffed, blindfolded and pinned to the ground while her young children looked on, screaming. In prison, she said, she was kept in solitary confinement, beaten by armed guards and sexually assaulted.

"Jalila asked why she was released and was told it was because she is a woman," Mr Roach said. "She told us she is not going to stop her quest to expose what's happening in Bahrain."

Mr Roach said the delegation met teachers who claimed heads were under pressure to "make an example" of teachers who showed dissent or engaged in political opposition - by sacking them.

"There seem to be thousands of workers who have been sacked and left without any income in the past year," he said. "The teachers I met had experienced desperate circumstances, but their fortitude and resilience were something to behold."

Mr Roach has written a report about his findings, which he will send to Prime Minister David Cameron. His US colleagues are sending a report to secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

The uprising

On 14 February 2011, known as the Day of Rage, protesters converged on the streets of Bahrain to call for reform of the government.

The demonstrations continued and, in mid March 2011, the King imposed martial law and a state of emergency. Dozens of protesters were reported killed, with hundreds more arrested and given lengthy jail sentences.

At the end of June, the King ordered an independent investigation, which found that many detainees had been tortured to extract confessions and had suffered physical and psychological abuse.

Bahrain has a population of 1.1 million and about 200 schools.

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Kerra Maddern

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