Pitt law students hope to get to Bahrain
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The University of Pittsburgh's goal of engaging in civilized legal debate in Bahrain next week might fall victim to the violence that has enveloped the tiny Mideast country.
Pitt law professor Ron Brand is scheduled to lead a team of three students and one recent graduate to the Persian Gulf nation Thursday for a first-ever moot court competition involving universities from six Mideast nations -- Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Tunisia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
The competition, combined with a conference on international commercial law, would prepare the students for April's Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot competition in Vienna.
Presuming, of course, that it is safe to go to Bahrain.
In the past week, protesters have taken to the streets there demanding an end to the monarchy. Friday, at least 50 people were wounded and four were killed as security forces opened fire on the crowd.
Mr. Brand said the university, working with the U.S. Department of Commerce, expects to make a decision on the trip early next week.
"Nobody had ever done this before, gotten six schools in the Middle East -- all Arab schools --together to do this kind of arbitration or moot court activity," Mr. Brand said. "It's new to them ... and it creates good relationships with their schools. It does positive things. But we don't want to do it at the risk of people getting hurt."
Mr. Brand said this would be his fourth trip to Bahrain and the university just outside of the capital city of Manama. He said he's found the tiny nation -- about the size of Allegheny County -- to be friendly and peaceful.
"My impression in the past has been that it's a reasonably stable, small country," he said. "The Bahrain nationals make up the upper echelon of the population. But Bahrain is not nearly as rich as some of the other Gulf states, so you don't have the kind of ostentatious wealth that you see in places like Dubai."
The moot court program is part of an agreement Pitt has made to work with the law schools at the Mideast universities to help develop their curricula in international commercial law and arbitration. The students on both ends work together through the year via the Internet, then look forward to the sessions next week to hone their skills in oral arguments.
"We have the students teach them because we found that they can make the students there work harder than I ever could," Mr. Brand said. "They're better able to convince them that this is important and you've got to work hard, and they listen to them. The students there work much harder if they know somebody their own age who has gone through this says, 'Look, this is a good thing for you to do.' "
Richard Kyle, 25, a third-year law student at Pitt, is among those planning for the trip. He's been working with students in Bahrain and Egypt, which experienced its own political upheaval in the past month.
"This is the first year that Egypt has taken part," he said. "I've worked with them since November, and there were no problems. Then, when the protests started there last month, my team in Alexandria was distracted, to say the least. The leader of the team was defending his street from rioters through the night. So their work was hampered."
Mr. Kyle said things have settled down in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak resigned, but it still isn't clear whether the Egyptian students will be able to travel to Bahrain.
"My team leader in Bahrain said the situation there has changed drastically over the week," he said. "At first, the protests were by and large peaceful. On Tuesday, there were tourists taking pictures with the protesters. But after the square was cleared at 3 a.m. [Wednesday], she hasn't been as optimistic."
Mr. Brand said the Pitt students remain hopeful about the trip and all involved are monitoring events.
"This is an incredible opportunity to be training other law students in things that they've done. They all want to do it, they all want to go, but none of us wants to put ourselves in a difficult situation that could be threatening in any way. So we're being careful."
He said Pitt administrators have been working on contingency plans if Bahrain is deemed unsafe. But they are determined to follow through.
"The way we look at is, we've agreed to give these students some training," he said. "It wouldn't be fair if we didn't carry out our obligation."
One possibility would be waiting a week and conducting the exercise in Qatar or at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, which Mr. Brand said "is in the middle of the desert. A very quiet place."
A decision, he said, is likely to be made Monday or Tuesday, and he expects the students will be glad to finally have the matter resolved.
"They're a good group. They're flexible," he said. "You don't get people willing to go to these countries who aren't a little flexible."
First Published February 19, 2011 12:00 am