In Bahrain, AFT leader seeks release of teacher unionist

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AFT vice president Candice Owley traveled to the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain in April to appeal for the release of imprisoned Bahrain Teachers Association (BTA) president Mahdi Abu Dheeb and to insist that all charges against him and other jailed nurses, doctors and healthcare workers be dropped.

Mahdi Abu Dheeb

Abu Dheeb (pictured at left) has been held since his arrest 15 months ago for his involvement in pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain, a country that is an ally of the United States; he is the only union leader still imprisoned. He reports that he has been repeatedly tortured in prison. In addition, he is several months into a hunger strike, and his family is very concerned for his health.

Abu Dheeb and BTA vice president Jalila Al-Salman were tried in a military court and sentenced to 10 and three years, respectively. Al-Salman has been released on bail, pending a retrial, but the government will not release Abu Dheeb. (See earlier story.)

Owley, who is president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and chair of the AFT democracy committee, went to Bahrain on behalf of the AFL-CIO as part of an International Trade Union Confederation delegation, led by general secretary Sharan Burrow. The delegation also included Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International, among other union leaders.

Labor delegation in BahrainCandice Owley (in lavender) represented the AFL-CIO and AFT in meetings with Bahraini officials.

The delegation was to meet with King Hamad bin 'Isa Al-Khalifa, but was informed the night before that he had a schedule conflict. Instead, Owley and others met with Minister of Labor Jameel Bin Mohammed Ali Humaidan and Deputy Prime Minister Shaikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa.

"They gave much lip service to a desire to have good dialogue with labor," says Owley, "but it was all about the private sector." They said they would consider van Leeuwen's request to see Abu Dheeb and heard the labor delegation's concerns about the individuals still imprisoned as well as those who have been released but permanently suspended from their jobs.

Jalila Al SalmanBTU vice president Jalila Al-Salman and BNA president Rula Al-Saffer are out of prison, awaiting appeals.

In the days leading up to the meeting, Owley met with activists from the BTA and the Bahrain Nurses Association, including BNA president Rula Al-Saffer, who was tortured while she was in prison. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison but is out pending the outcome of an appeal. Owley heard firsthand accounts of the ongoing persecution of workers, union leaders and human rights activists more than a year after peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations came to an end.

"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.

"Medical people, including highly skilled physicians have been released from prison, but they are not allowed to work or to leave the country. They are getting desperate because they can't feed their families. They were tortured, forced to sign confessions and in some cases were blindfolded and did not even know what they signed.

Teachers were among those arrested, and "the police encouraged their own students to beat them. The government has placed military observers in hospitals and schools to make sure teachers don't make political statements, and, most cruelly, to make sure medical personnel can't treat protesters, who now must risk dying at home—which has happened."

Education International and the AFT are urging strong action on behalf of the imprisoned Bahrain activists. Go to the EI website to send an urgent letter to the king of Bahrain. [Barbara McKenna, Candice Owley/photos courtesy EI]

May 8, 2012