AFT renews calls to free Bahrain teachers union president

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 On Sept. 12, a Bahrain appeals court judge again postponed a hearing on the appeals of Mahdi Abu Dheeb, president of the Bahrain Teachers Association, and Jalila Al Salman, BTA vice president. The BTA leaders were convicted a year ago of charges stemming from their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted in February 2011, as part of the multicountry freedom movement known as Arab Spring.

Abu Dheeb and Al Salman were among nearly 3,000 civilians arrested for exercising their right to free speech and association. Among the charges against them: inciting hatred toward the regime, calling to overthrow and change the regime by force, and calling on teachers to stop working and participate in strikes and demonstrations. The brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters landed hard on teachers, healthcare professionals and the leaders of their unions. Many were detained, and many lost their jobs. Four people died in custody.

At the same time the BTA leaders were detained, 20 nurses and doctors were arrested under similar charges, including the head of the Bahrain Nursing Society, Rula al-Saffar. Despite their status as civilians, Abu Dheeb and Al Salman were tried in military court and sentenced, respectively, to 10 years and three years in prison. Charges against al-Saffar were finally dropped this year. All other convicted union leaders, except Abu Dheeb, have been released pending their appeals, which the government repeatedly postpones.

Abu Dheeb has diabetes, and his health is deteriorating, says his family. This summer, the court accepted a Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report providing evidence that Abu Dheeb and others have been tortured.

The AFT and Education International step up
Around the world, many organizations are working to support the Bahrainis. The AFT and Education International have been vocal from the beginning. AFT president Randi Weingarten wrote a letter of protest to the King of Bahrain in April 2011 and a second letter in December to the U.S. ambassador to Bahrain asking him and his staff to look into the situation of the BTA president, to attend his trial and to visit him in prison. AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence delivered a protest letter to the Bahrain Embassy in February. Many of our members signed an online Education International protest letter earlier this year. (See related story.)

In April, AFT vice president Candice Owley traveled to Bahrain representing the AFL-CIO on an International Trade Union Confederation delegation that attempted to deliver a protest letter to the King of Bahrain. He did not see them, but Owley was able to spend time with embattled trade unionists. "Among the people I met with," she says in a report about her visit, "there was a sense of desperation, that time is short, and that they are at the mercy of this regime without strong long-term support from the international trade union and human rights communities. (See AFT news coverage of Owley's trip.)

The AFT and the AFL-CIO have appealed to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to release the report of a U.S. Labor Department investigation into Bahrain's compliance with its workers' rights obligations under the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement. The agreement requires Bahrain to comply with International Labor Organization standards including the right of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. If the report is released, and if it does cite violations as most experts believe it will, the basis will be laid for ending the trade agreement with Bahrain.

In addition, the AFT is working with Amnesty International in a joint protest activity that involves you—our members.

[Larry Specht, Barbara McKenna]

September 20, 2012