More than 2,000 workers in Bahrain have been fired from state-linked firms and government jobs in apparent retribution for participating in pro-democracy protests earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
Bahrain's security forces have smothered an uprising by the Gulf kingdom's majority Shiites seeking greater freedoms and rights from the Sunni rulers in the tiny but strategically important island nation that is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Stripping perceived opposition supporters of their jobs would mark an expansion of the crackdown by targeting people's livelihoods as a warning to others not to return to the streets.
The New York-based rights group said more than 2,000 workers and union activists were dismissed from jobs at government ministries, schools, hospitals and firms that include the state-run Bahrain Petroleum Company.
"The dismissals may have violated Bahraini labor laws as well as international standards, in particular those prohibiting discrimination on the basis of political opinion," the rights group said in a statement calling on Bahraini authorities to investigate and reinstate unlawfully dismissed workers.
Bahrain's energy minister, Abdulhussain bin Ali Mirza, told the state-run Bahrain News Agency in May that the state oil company had dismissed 293 employees since March 15, when authorities imposed martial law to quell the Shiite-led campaign to loosen the Sunni monarchy's grip on power. As of July 12, the oil company has dismissed 303 workers, the rights groups said in Friday's statement.
Human Rights Watch also said Bahrain's Education Ministry has fired 111 employees since April and the government also disbanded the Teachers Association.
Last month, the Geneva-based International Labor Organization sharply criticized the dismissal of workers and urged Bahrain to reinstate them.
In May, a major U.S.-based labor group asked Washington to suspend a free trade pact with Bahrain in response to the purging of union leaders accused of supporting pro-reform protests.
Bahrain's Shiites account for about 70 percent of the kingdom's population, but they claim systematic discrimination, including being blocked from top military and political posts. Their revolt in February _ inspired by other Arab uprisings around the region _ have been by far the biggest domestic challenge to any Gulf ruler in decades.
At least 32 people have died and hundreds of protesters, opposition activists and Shiite professionals like doctors and lawyers have been detained during five months of demonstrations and crackdowns. Dozens of them have been tried in a special security tribunal, including eight prominent opposition figures who were convicted of anti-state crimes last month and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Bahrain lifted emergency rule in June and the Sunni monarchy made token concessions ahead of the U.S.-supported reconciliation talks between the monarchy and the opposition, including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces during the revolt and moving trials of suspected opposition supporters from the special tribunal with military prosecutors to the country's civilian courts.
The so-called national dialogue began July 2. Earlier this week, the delegates of the main opposition party, Al Wefaq, threatened to pull out of talks because they said the government is not willing to discuss political reform.
The final decision on Al Wefaq's continued participation is expected Sunday.