In divided Bahrain, students pay price for protests

MANAMA Wed Jun 29, 2011 9:22am EDT

Anti-government protesters confront riot police assembled on a flyover near the Pearl Square in Manama, March 13, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Anti-government protesters confront riot police assembled on a flyover near the Pearl Square in Manama, March 13, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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MANAMA (Reuters) - As the summer heat sets in, most university students in Bahrain are eagerly looking forward to getting out of class. But 19 year-old Mohammed and his friends are struggling to get back in.

Local rights groups say over 400 mostly Shi'ite students have been expelled from Bahraini universities in recent months, charged with participating in the "unauthorized protests" which shook the Gulf island kingdom earlier this year.

Mohammed, a second year student at Bahrain University, described a string of student dismissals since March, in which officials used protesters' own Facebook postings and YouTube videos against them to identify students who joined demonstrations or criticized the government online.

"There is an aggressive with-us-or-against-us mentality," he said, declining to give his full name for fear of further government reprisals. "If you went out to the streets to ask for your rights, now you must be punished."

School officials say students crossed a red line by calling for the fall of the government on school grounds. Students insist many of them only protested off-campus, and warn the punishments have increased pent-up anger that could erupt again.

The Sunni rulers of Bahrain, home port to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, quashed weeks of protests led mostly by the country's Shi'ite majority during a March crackdown that also has seen up to 2,000 workers sacked and hundreds arrested.

Bahrain said the protests had a sectarian agenda with backing from Shi'ite power Iran, which the opposition denies.

The education ministry has said students can apply to other schools, but they have complained they were unable to get copies of their transcripts. They were also convinced no other local university would take on students expelled for protests.

Some, under a travel ban for political activities, cannot study abroad. Others are too afraid to leave.

"The situation is very bad. Some of us have parents who were sacked. What if the other parent gets sacked? We have to save everything we have," said 21-year-old Sayed.

Like other students, he met Reuters at a deserted shopping mall out of fear of speaking out. Sayed was less than a semester from graduating when he was dismissed in March.

BUDDING ACTIVISTS

Mohammed fears arrest if he applies for a job and is discovered to be an expelled student protester. Instead, he spends afternoons driving through Shi'ite villages looking for protests and networking with activists by mobile phone.

"I don't have class, I don't have work. So I work for the revolution. They stole my rights, my future, I will fight back," he said. "I have nothing to lose."

Tensions have been high since the crackdown and protests have occurred daily since the government lifted an emergency law on June 1. A national dialogue for reforms, planned to start on July 2, has fallen on deaf ears among younger and increasingly hardline Shi'ite youths.

Across town, 20 year-old Asma Darwish, one of some 40 students expelled from Bahrain Polytechnic last week, has devoted her time to looking for scholarships and activism.

"They have a bunch of smart young people sitting at home with nothing to do. It will ruin the country," said Darwish, her black veil and abaya hanging from a slim frame, frail from finishing a nine-day hunger strike over her brother's detention.

Days after police escorted her off campus, she was briefly arrested for staging a small sit-in at a United Nations office.

Some students face worse sanctions: One woman, who was afraid to give her name, said she was jailed for a month the night after she admitted at a school questioning that she was active at protests.

She said she was beaten with sticks and electric rods in detention, and threatened with rape. The government has denied systematic abuse and said any incidents will be investigated.

"I had never considered myself an activist, I just wanted a better life," she said. "I'm stronger now. I learned what politics are, that we have rights and should speak up for them."

LOYALTY PLEDGE

The University of Bahrain's dean of student affairs defended the dismissals, saying students would be able to appeal, and that those punished clearly broke school rules.

"They disrupted the educational environment with unauthorized protests... if they raised slogans against the regime, that's an additional violation," said Adnan al-Tamimi.

The University of Bahrain now also requires its students to sign a loyalty pledge to Bahrain and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The pledge says those who do not sign are giving up their right to university study, and those who break the pledge can be expelled.

University officials said the pledge was not new, but signatures are now required to ensure students know the rules.

One employee, who defended the dismissals, said even he was disturbed by the mood on campus in recent months, where white stickers with bold black letters have been plastered all over the walls: "God will not pardon what has passed."

Not only Bahraini, but Saudi and UAE flags flutter in doorways -- a tribute to the troops from neighboring Sunni Gulf countries that came in to back Bahrain's government during its crackdown.

"You can't say anything, or they will accuse you of being against the government," the employee whispered. "It worries me, they seem to forget: One day you are on top, the next on the bottom. No government lasts forever."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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