FIFA, Man United, and Torture in Bahrain
This blog is cross posted from The Huffington Post:
The 2011 targeting of footballers and other athletes in Bahrain following the pro-democracy protests there is threatening Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa’s bid for the FIFA presidency.
Al Khalifa of Bahrain’s ruling family has announced his candidacy for the post this week saying the job required “an experienced, competent and honest leadership capable of winning the confidence of the international football community.”
But then UK newspaper The Guardian uncovered what seems to be a smoking gun document linking him directly to the crackdown, suggesting he was a senior member of a special committee set up to identify athletes who took part in the demonstrations.
AP estimated that more than 150 athletes, coaches, and referees were targeted, and some jailed for their perceived part in the protests.
In May 2011 I was in Bahrain researching the crackdown and found other human rights violations related to football and specifically Manchester United.
I met the family of Ahmad Shams, a 15-year-old boy who was shot by the police, according to his family, while wearing a Man United shirt about six weeks before. He was playing football with his friends near his home in Sar on March 30, 2011, when his family says he was killed by security forces. Around 5:30 p.m. in a quiet area, two groups of security vehicles appeared, nine in all. When the boys playing saw them they ran, and the police started shooting rubber bullets at them.
They say Ahmed was hit by a “sound bomb” cartridge on the back of his head. He continued running, but was caught and beaten by the police. His father took him to a relative’s house and then to the American Mission hospital. While being examined by a doctor, his family says security troops came and took him to the main Salmaniya Hospital, where he died, still wearing a Manchester United shirt.
An international commission of inquiry into what happened during the crackdown on protestors ordered by the Bahraini government found that “No autopsy was conducted and no formal cause of death has been recorded,” and that “The MoI [Ministry of the Interior] has failed to conduct an effective investigation into the circumstances surrounding this death.”
Ahmed’s bedroom wall had posters of Wayne Rooney and others of the 2010-2011 United team. In the weeks after his death, some people in Bahrain wrote to Man United ambitiously asking if they might hold a minute’s silence before one of their games in tribute to Ahmed. People sent emails to the Man United account making the request. One of them was Dr. Fatima Haji, a rheumatologist in Bahrain’s Salmaniya Medical Complex, and a Ryan Giggs fan.
With dozens of other medics she was arrested after treating injured protestors and tortured in custody. But her interrogation was a bit different; she had written the email asking for the minute’s silence and then deleted it, knowing it might be incriminating. When she was arrested on April 17 her laptop was taken too, and a few days later — with tragic efficiency — Man United responded to her email, which her interrogators then saw.
“I was blindfolded and handcuffed with my hands behind my back, and beaten,” she told me. “A man asked me ‘What’s is your relationship with Alex Ferguson?’ I was shocked and figured out they’d gone through my emails. A female officer hit me on head on both sides at the same time — she was wearing what I later found out was a special electrical band on her hands and she electrocuted me a couple of times — I felt a shock wave through my head. It was very painful and the whole world was spinning. I was beaten again on the head.”
Haji says she was questioned over and over again about her connection to Manchester United: “because they’d responded to my email the police thought I somehow knew someone at Manchester United.” She spent several weeks in custody and was tried with 19 other medics in a military court. She was sentenced to five years in prison and finally acquitted on appeal in June 2012. One of her co-accused, Dr. Ali Alekry, is still in prison.
Man United has run football camps in Bahrain since then, and the regime is proud of its links with major international sporting brands – it hosts an annual Formula 1 grand prix. Winning the FIFA presidency would be a major coup for the monarchy.
But opposition to Al Khalifa’s bid is growing. Guardian sportswriter Marina Hyde described Sheikh Al Khalifa as a “monstrous arsehole…whose ascent to football primacy has been a classic riches-to-riches story.” Even FIFA – known for its tolerance of corruption and an embarrassing leadership – must realize having Sheikh Al Khalifa in charge would damage its reputation beyond repair.