AFT Urges Release of Imprisoned Bahraini Union Leader

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Fran LawrenceAFT Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence passes a letter for the ambassador through the locked gates of the Bahrain embassy. Photo by Michael Campbell.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the beginning of pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain, AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence hand-delivered a letter to the Bahraini Embassy on Feb. 13 calling for the release of the imprisoned president of Bahrain's teachers union.

In the letter to Houda Nonoo, Bahrain's ambassador to the United States, Lawrence protested the continuing detention of Mahdi Abu Deeb, president of the Bahrain Teachers Association (BTA), who was arrested with other teacher union leaders last year. She expressed further heightened concern upon learning that Abu Deeb began a hunger strike Feb. 12 to demand the release of all political prisoners.

Feb. 14, 2011, was the day pro-democracy supporters peacefully took to the streets of Bahrain, a nation in the Persian Gulf that is an ally of the United States. They were inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt to assert their demands for political freedom and ethnic equality. When the Sunni-controlled government responded with a bloody crackdown, teachers called a strike and the army withdrew. The next few months, however, were marked by the declaration of emergency rule, military escalations, deaths of protesters, and the imprisonment of BTA board members and officers. While the board members were released after a month, Abu Deeb and BTA vice president Jaleela Al-Salman were detained, as were medical personnel and others.

Writing on behalf of the AFT's 1.5 million members, Lawrence said that she was "delivering this letter personally to register our strong concerns about the Bahrain government's treatment of teachers, healthcare workers and their union leaders in the aftermath of the Feb. 14, 2011, demonstrations in Bahrain." The Physicians for Human Rights organization has called Bahrain's mistreatment of medical personnel during and after the demonstrations some of the most extreme violations of medical neutrality in the last 50 years.

Protestors in Bahrain. AP Photo/Hasan JamaliProtestors gesture at riot police in the streets of Manama, Bahrain in January. AP Photo/Hasan Jamali.

"We are appalled that these dedicated public servants, who belong to quintessentially peaceful professions, who teach your children and help the sick and infirm, would face such consequences for exercising their rights as citizens," Lawrence said in the letter to the ambassador. "The reports of the use of torture against many of the arrested protesters as confirmed by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry shocked Americans."

Despite their civilian status, Abu Deeb and BTA al-Salman were convicted in military court of several charges related to the demonstrations, and both were sentenced to three to 10 years in prison. Al-Salman was released last month, but Abu Deeb remains behind bars. In addition, 20 doctors, nurses and paramedics were convicted in the military-controlled National Safety Court and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Noting that Abu Deeb's family has voiced concerns about his health, Lawrence added, "We ask your government to release this brave man and all political prisoners immediately." Such a move, Lawrence wrote to the ambassador, would be "a first step in the process of reconciliation."

AFT president Randi Weingarten raised similar concerns last April shortly after the Bahrain Teachers Association leaders were first arrested. Her letter of protest to Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa was not answered.

Over the past year, the Bahrain government's crackdown against labor organizations and their leaders has been monitored by the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labor Organization. In addition to arrests and detention of union leaders, the ITUC and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions have estimated that thousands of teachers and other workers who participated in strikes and demonstrations have been dismissed or targeted for other retaliation by the government.

The AFT is urging members to add their voices to the international outcry of support for Abu Deeb by signing Education International's petition. [Barbara McKenna, Tom Lansworth, Larry Specht]

February 13, 2012