The government of Bahrain has abruptly suspended the accreditation of more than 100 Chinese universities, including medical schools, according to local media reports. The Chinese ambassador Li Chen was quoted as saying he was “surprised the decision came from the ministry of education without contacting Chinese authorities, the embassy or the universities to give reasons for the decision.”
The ambassador later confirmed in a phone conversation that he was given no prior warning and has not been provided with any reasons for the move: “I am not sure why they did this and I am trying to contact the Bahrainis to get more information.”
The decision affects approximately 500 students, most of whom are attending medical schools.
In a statement, the ministry of education confirmed the suspension but provided little insight as to why it was doing so.
A spokesperson from the ministry said “(it) has formed a committee to look into the outcomes of the Chinese universities, to study the outcomes with reference to the market needs.”
However a source said that there was a concern about the quality of some of the schools. Equally, the source added, Shia account for almost all of the students going into Chinese medical schools from Bahrain and suggested this was a way for the authorities to punish a community they blame for the ongoing unrest in the kingdom.
In a country where they are the indigenous majority population. Shia are barred from jobs in the military and are restricted to serving as community officers in the police. One of the professions that historically has been open to Shia Bahrainis is medicine.
Although the two are not related, the decision to withdraw accreditation followed the arrest of a Bahraini medical student under the country’s anti-terrorism legislation. Abdulla Hassan al Gallaf was arrested in the early hours of 19 February at his family home on the outskirts of the capital Manama. According to his lawyers, he is being detained for a case that goes back to 2014.
Abdulla is a first year student at Wenzhou Medical University, Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, China.
In a 2013 interview, he told the BBC how in February of that year while returning from a friend’s house, he was arrested, beaten and forced to sign a false confession. He was sentenced to four months in jail. He was asked if he had given the police any cause to arrest him. Was he rioting, was he throwing stones or Molotov cocktails?
“On the contrary,” he said “I was just holding my books and was going home after I finished my studies. I didn’t know there was any trouble in the area.”
Abdulla missed two exams while in jail. He retook them and scored very high marks and from all reports continues to be an excellent student. His arrest has hit the family hard. His mother died in 2011, after a teargas canister was fired into their apartment during unrest that followed the crushing of a peaceful pro-democracy campaign. The family is convinced that her death was directly related to the teargas incident.
In the interview both Abdulla and his father Hassan spoke with quiet dignity about how their lives had been torn apart. It seemed unlikely that this studious young man was an anti-government activist, let alone a stone throwing rioter. Abdulla was determined to complete his remaining high school exams and follow his dream of becoming a doctor.
Yet even that choice, given Bahrain’s recent history, was fraught with risk.
Doctors on the frontline
The kingdom’s main public hospital is Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC). It was considered the jewel in the crown of the country’s public healthcare system and many of the SMC’s leading consultants were Shia Bahrainis.
But the hospital is close to what was an iconic landmark in the capital, Manama – Pearl Roundabout – which was peacefully occupied by activists on 14 February 2011. Although there were some Sunni protesters, the vast majority were Shia.
When security forces first stormed the roundabout in the early hours of 17 February 2011, doctors, nurses and paramedics from Salmaniya rushed to the aid of people who had been shot, beaten and tear-gassed.
They staged a protest after word spread that security forces were preventing the wounded from being brought to the hospital. For the next few weeks, the government allowed the demonstrators to re-occupy the roundabout. Doctors from SMC set up a medical tent to provide care for the thousands camping out to press their demands.
Some of the medics appeared on international news outlets criticising the government and the security forces. Others chose to stay quiet and tend to the protesters’ medical needs.
And then, on 14 March 2011, Saudi Arabia led a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) force down the King Fahd Causeway, which links Bahrain to the Arabian Peninsula. Martial law was declared and Saudi troops took up positions at key installations, while Bahraini police and soldiers cleared Pearl Roundabout by force.
Two days later the authorities sent the army, known as the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF), into the Salmaniya Medical Complex. At the time, the government said it had been forced to take the step because armed protesters were threatening staff and patients. It further alleged that weapons were being stored in the hospital.
Then, in the following weeks, doctors and nurses began to be arrested in a series of night-time raids. They were allegedly tortured into giving false confessions before being convicted by a military tribunal and sentenced to lengthy terms in jail.
One of those doctors was Nada Dhaif. She has a private practice but went to Pearl Roundabout to assist colleagues. She recalls how men wearing balaclavas had stormed her house. “I didn’t know who they were, it was the middle of the night and I thought I was being kidnapped.” She tells of how, while in custody she was tortured, threatened with rape and forced to sign a confession while blindfolded. A military court sentenced her to 15 years in jail.
The treatment of the doctors provoked an international outcry. It alerted the world to the ongoing human rights abuses in the kingdom. Intense pressure from Bahrain’s western allies, notably the United States, forced the government’s hand.
In June 2011, in the midst of ongoing unrest, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa asked an independent panel of international human rights experts to investigate alleged abuses.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), chaired by the Egyptian lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, submitted a damning indictment five months later. The report documented numerous abuses, including the systematic torture of detainees by security forces, and confirmed that medics had been mistreated in detention and forced to sign confessions under duress.
The report found that the security services had carried out unlawful arrests in the hospital, attacked medical personnel and that on 16 March 2011 the BDF had taken “control of the entire complex and placed some injured persons, whom it sought to keep under its control, on the sixth floor of SMC”. It found no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the government claim that doctors were storing weapons in the hospital. King Hamad accepted the report in full and promised reforms.
Thirty-one of the 48 Salmaniya medical workers who were convicted before the military tribunal were subsequently acquitted by a civilian court, among them Dr Dhaif, who returned to private practice. Three remain in jail and many of those who have been acquitted have not been allowed back to their previous posts at Salmaniya while others have left the profession altogether.
A clumsy operation
The extraordinary decision to pull accreditation from Chinese medical colleges without any consultation has no doubt ruffled feathers and behind the scenes will have infuriated the Chinese. It is a diplomatic faux pas and a humiliation, one China is unlikely to forget. And given that the Bahrainis have worked hard to cultivate relations with Beijing – in 2013 King Hamad was the first Bahraini head of state to visit China – the move seems doubly strange.
The fact that so many universities in China, many of them very reputable, had their accreditation suspended is odd too. For example, Wenzhou, the university that Abdulla attends is accredited in the United States. Ambassador Chen says: “we need to get more information in the next week or two and yes we are concerned.” A source says that privately the ambassador is “really angry” and expects an explanation from the Bahrainis.
However, Dr Dhaif is among those who say this is yet one more example of the regime’s clampdown on Shia in the medical profession. She argues that for Shia who have been otherwise blocked from pursuing a career in medicine, the Chinese schools offered a way for them to realise their dreams.
Dr Dhaif alleged that Shia students are routinely denied scholarships, a huge drawback given the prohibitive costs of medical school. “The interview counts for 60% and the grades 40% and frequently, according to testimonies from some interviewed students one of the questions asked is ‘were you at Pearl Roundabout?'”
Without scholarships there was just one route open: “China was the best option for those denied higher education opportunities because it is affordable.”
As for Abdulla whom she knows well, she says he is “just not capable of violent protest. He is very low key. Others, yes, but not that kid.”
Abdulla remains in detention with his education on hold and his future uncertain.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, a perplexed Ambassador Chen is pushing for answers about a sweeping and arbitrary decision that has the potential to chill relations between Bahrain and China and has already adversely affected hundreds of young Bahrainis.