More than 100 Bahraini government employees have been fired in recent weeks for their political views, signaling an ongoing campaign to crush dissent in the wake of a pro-democracy uprising this spring.
They join 600 workers who have already been forced to leave government ministries and universities and about 1,900 workers sacked by private businesses this spring. While the Ministry of Labor has reinstated about a fifth of those fired, the most recent dismissals challenge official portrayals of the kingdom as going back to normal following the government's brutal crackdown, in which at least 30 people were killed and hundreds detained.
An independent commission appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to investigate the crackdown could lead to more workers regaining their jobs. But some are losing confidence in the Bahrain Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which has become a focal point for angry protests.
Sayed Salman, head of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBT), says he appreciates the efforts of the Labor ministry so far to reinstate employees who were unfairly fired, but says the proportion of workers reinstated is too small and has taken too long. He also rejects government arguments that dismissals, such as those taking place at government ministries currently, are disciplinary measures carried out according to law.
“When you talk about the dismissal of 10 or 15 people, that is one thing," says Mr. Salman. "When you talk about the collective dismissal of hundreds of people from different ministries, it is a systematic dismissal to get rid of anyone who is suspected of having supported the political unrest.”
19 Shiite academics fired last week
Last week, 19 academics and 40 staff members were fired from the University of Bahrain, including Abdulla Al Derazi, who has been an English language professor at the university for 20 years and is also head of the Bahrain Human Rights Society. He says the university accused the academics of participating in protests, expressing political opinions critical of the government, and talking to the media. The university also accused Prof. Derazi of civil disobedience for being absent from work during protests – which he denies.
“There’s no grounds for what they did because it’s all unconstitutional,” says Derazi. “The decision was based on political and sectarian reasons.”
All 19 academics are Shiite, as are most of the more than 2,500 workers who have so far been dismissed, according to the count of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. Bahrain’s population is about 60 percent Shiite.
Though Shiites made up the majority of the protesters demanding democratic reform from Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, the movement's aims were democratic rather than sectarian. But the government has largely targeted Shiites in its efforts to quell the uprising, which began in February inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The government called in Saudi and other Gulf forces to participate in a violent crackdown in March.
'Is sending an e-mail a crime?'
In recent months, the government has sought to portray the crisis as over. It held a national dialogue billed as a gathering to address political problems, and released some of the hundreds it had detained during the crackdown, including two former members of parliament from the largest opposition bloc, Al Wefaq.
But activists and opposition members say the national dialogue didn’t address Bahrain’s real problems, and point out that those who have been released still face politically motivated charges.
The private sector firings largely took place in April, targeting Shiites and employees who had participated in protests. Many companies attempted to justify the dismissals by saying employees were absent. But some of the government institutions seem to be more open about the political reasons for the dismissals.
One man who worked for the University of Bahrain says the university told him he was fired because of emails he had forwarded to colleagues that contained articles critical of the government.
“Is sending an e-mail a crime? It’s a right of expression,” says the man, who did not want to give his name for fear of harming his chances of being reinstated through an appeal. “I have a family, I have kids. Things are difficult without a job.”
One employee recently fired from the Ministry of Municipalities was told he was dismissed for participating in protests at Pearl Square, the focal point of the demonstrations. Another fired University of Bahrain employee said his superiors showed him a photo of himself at Pearl Square. This employee was recently reinstated, and did not want to give his name for fear of losing his job once again.
The total number of public sector firings, which are concentrated in the ministries of Health, Education, and Municipalities, has seen a recent uptick because many employees who were suspended in April or May have recently been notified of their terminations after investigations were completed.
503 workers reinstated
Some workers have been reinstated; the Ministry of Labor said Monday that 503 workers have regained their jobs.
“Persistent efforts have been exerted ... to encourage corporate managements so as to comply with legal criteria and requirements and adopt the right lawful procedures in order to reconcile the outcomes and recommendations of legal teams, ministry and corporate investigation committees as well as to explore any likely difficulties or problems which may still obstruct workers reinstatement to their jobs,” said the Ministry’s statement.
Government officials were unavailable for comment.
The commission shut its office Monday after hundreds of sacked workers gathered there, angry over an article in a local newspaper that reported the head of the commission, respected international war crimes expert Cherif Bassiouni, said he had found no evidence of crimes against humanity during the government’s crackdown. The commission said that hundreds of protesters forced their way into the office, yelling and threatening the staff.
The BICI said in a statement that Bassiouni had made no such determination about crimes against humanity, the commission was still gathering evidence, and that Bassiouni would give no more interviews after “certain media outlets and activists have misrepresented” his comments.
The offending interview, published in Al Ayam newspaper, which has ties to Bahrain’s government, was the second interview given by Bassiouni that raised concern among activists. In a Reuters interview Aug. 8, he praised the cooperation of the Interior Ministry and said his investigation, which had just begun, led him to believe that “there was never a [government] policy of excessive use of force or torture,” a point that activists have heatedly contested. After an uproar, he stated he had not yet come to conclusions.
A bid for the Guinness Book of World Records
Activists say that some Bahrainis are now less likely to go to the commission and report instances of torture or mistreatment they endured.
Others are taking matters into their own hands, forming a group to advocate for the rights of sacked employees. One of the group’s leaders, who asked to remain anonymous for his protection, said the group is collecting resumés of those fired, with plans to submit them to the Guinness Book of World Records to set a record for most workers collectively sacked for political reasons.
“We think that this kind of activity will not only make pressure to return the sacked people, it will also be a spotlight for the issue of Bahrain and what happened after the protests in February and March,” says the group leader. “There are still many kinds of crisis for the people of Bahrain. But maybe nobody cares.”