Forty cross-party MPs and peers have urged the University of Huddersfield to close a master’s course it runs at the Royal Academy of Policing in Bahrain, after allegations that political dissidents were being tortured in the same building.

The MPs, led by Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the Scottish National Party, have written to Huddersfield’s vice-chancellor, Bob Cryan, saying the university is at risk of “indirect implication in human rights abuse” by running an MSc in security science solely for officers of the academy.

Huddersfield will not say how much it is being paid for the course, which was inaugurated by Prince Andrew in April 2018 when he was the university’s chancellor. It says the course is in line with UK government policy and will bring about improvements in Bahrain.

However, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy campaign group (Bird) has collected testimonies from 13 individuals arrested for political activism, who say officers abused them during interrogations in the academy where the Huddersfield course is based. Some report being electrocuted and beatings to their genitals. Four have reported sexual abuse.

Prince Andrew at a Huddersfield University graduation ceremony in 2015. Photograph: Charlotte Graham/Rex/Shutterstock

This week’s letter, signed by MPs including Layla Moran, the Lib Dem spokesperson for foreign affairs, and John Cryer, chair of the parliamentary Labour party, says Ali Mohamed Hakeem al-Arab, 24, who was executed in Bahrain in July 2019 despite a human rights outcry, was tortured at the academy.

A Bahraini doctor now working in the NHS was granted asylum in the UK last year on the basis of his testimony about being tortured at the policing academy. Speaking out for the first time the doctor, who is treating Covid patients at a British hospital, says: “The academy is not a place of learning. It is a place of torture and human rights violation. The UK government must put restrictions on a British university training in such a place.”

The doctor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against his relatives in Bahrain, said he was one of more than 200 suspected activists arrested and taken to Jau prison, across the road from the academy, after political protests in May 2017. He said he was taken with other inmates to the academy on seven occasions to be interrogated and tortured, often through the night.

“I told the Home Office in my application for asylum that an officer said to me ‘See that water bottle we gave you to drink? You don’t deserve to drink it’. That water bottle was then used to rape me. They kept kicking me on my balls. They have a device which provokes electric shocks. They used that on my anus and my spine and buttocks. All of these things happened in the academy.”

He said officers threatened to rape his mother and sisters to try to make him confess to taking part in protests and to giving medical treatment to protesters.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Bird’s director of advocacy, escaped Bahrain after being tortured by police, and has evidence that his brother-in-law and cousin have since been tortured at the academy. He is concerned that Huddersfield’s MSc, which includes modules on forensics and terrorism, will allow officers at the academy to conceal evidence of torture. “The course provides this academy, which prisoners call a torture hub, with legitimacy. The partnership with this British university is a way of laundering their image,” he says.

Huddersfield University said: “The delivery of this course is in line with the mission advocated by the UK government’s Department of International Trade.” It quoted Lord Ahmad, minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, who said last year that the UK was committed to supporting Bahrain-led reform and that “disengaging or criticising from the sidelines is less likely to deliver the positive reform that Bahrain and the international community seek”.

However, the Liberal democrat peer Lord Scriven, who signed this week’s letter, said the university had failed to provide any evidence of improvements.

“I’m from Huddersfield. It’s where all my family live and I feel very proud of it. This stain of blood on the local university which is carrying out a so-called academic course in a regime where human rights are being severely questioned really worries me,” he says.

Scriven says he wrote to Huddersfield’s vice-chancellor about his concerns but says he received only a “standard reply”. He felt this way of dealing with it was a “pompous and unethical” response. “I would go so far as to say he doesn’t care about what is happening there,” he says.

Ahmed al-Qassab, a Bahrainian student of HR management at Huddersfield who was granted asylum in the UK in 2018 on the basis of his testimony about being tortured by police in Bahrain, has also written urging Cryan to abandon the course.

He says: “Anybody familiar with the Bahraini regime knows that they are not interested in educating their police force or improving standards. They are seeking new ways to cover up their violations and clean up their violent reputation. When I was granted asylum in the UK, I finally began to feel safe after years spent living in fear. Finding out my university is training the very people who tortured me has made me feel unsafe again.”

While Huddersfield has few supporters in higher education on this issue, the controversy taps into broader concerns about universities’ relationships with authoritarian states. An inquiry by the foreign affairs select committee in 2019 criticised the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office for playing a “nonexistent” role in advising universities on how to stop “autocratic” countries trampling on academic freedom. The MPs found “alarming evidence” of Chinese interference on British campuses, some of which appeared to be coordinated by the Chinese embassy in London.

The committee said officials at Confucius institutes, joint ventures between the host university and a partner university in China, were involved in confiscating papers that mentioned Taiwan at an academic conference. They also cited evidence that China was attempting to control dissidents studying in the UK, including an Uighur Muslim called Ayeshha, who was monitored and her family in China harassed.

Prof John Heathershaw, a member of a new Academic Freedom and Internationalisation working group, set up by the all-party parliamentary group on human rights, says universities should not be prevented from partnering with authoritarian states, but they need to be more transparent about the terms on which they are doing so. The group has launched a code of conduct to ensure universities protect themselves, and decisions are not driven only by financial return.

University Huddersfield building saying 'inspiring global professionals'
Huddersfield University said its Bahrain course was ‘in line with the mission advocated by the UK government’s Department of of International Trade.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Guardian

Heathershaw, an expert in international relations at the University of Exeter, says: “If you make an agreement with a Chinese institution there might be stipulations of joint approval of appointments with that institution. I have seen that.”

He says not all institutions will have the reputational power to play hard ball on partnership terms. “If you’re Oxford University making an agreement with a Chinese institution, you have a great deal of autonomy and can insist on your independence. But if you’re a modern university like Huddersfield, you won’t have the same power to negotiate.”

But Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford University, says fears about Chinese influence over UK universities are exaggerated. He says Chinese universities have “a good deal of autonomy” and can be held accountable for what they do, but should not be blamed for government agencies’ behaviour.

“If we follow that logic we should boycott everything to do with China,” he says. “That would be like boycotting the University of Texas because the US military is responsible for more than 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, or because of Trump’s separation of children from their families on the Mexican border.”

Bahrain has previously denied accusations of torture.