London 2012 Calling: But Not for Bahraini Athletes
To say that Bahrain has had a tumultuous year is an understatement. Since protests first broke out on February 14, 2011, Bahrain has come under increased international scrutiny for the ruling family’s brutal response to peaceful demonstrations. The crackdown has altered—and sometimes ended—the lives of a wide range of activists and citizens. Last week, for example, a court upheld the guilty verdicts of eleven of the twenty prominent medics arrested for treating protesters. Now, just weeks from the London Olympics, another group of Bahrainis faces an uncertain future: athletes. Their saga began on February 21 of last year as thousands gathered at the Pearl Roundabout for peaceful protests – among them, hundreds of athletes. No one expected them to be targeted since they had helped raise Bahrain’s international profile. But they were not immune. Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family, is president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and will be attending the London Games. After the protests, Sheikh Nasser went on TV and called for “a wall to fall on the heads” of all those who demonstrated. He then headed a committee that targeted 150 athletes and sports officials, including a disabled athlete. All this was captured on ESPN’s documentary ’60 Athletes of Bahrain’. Then, the arrests began. Over 150 athletes, coaches and referees were jailed after a special committee, chaired by Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the Bahrain Football Association chairman, identified them from photographs of the protests. Their crime? Peacefully calling for democratic reform. Of those imprisoned, many were tortured. Eight of the most prominent athletes were jailed, beaten, and charged with being agents of Iran or Hizbollah. They were given an unfair trial in a military court and sentenced to between two to twenty years in prison. It wasn’t until the end of June 2011, when FIFA threatened to freeze Bahrain’s membership, that many of the athletes were released. The government also fined a half-dozen football clubs US$20,000 each and suspended them from the league. The most famous of the persecuted athletes are two national football team players, the brothers A’ala and Mohammed Hubail, who were jailed and prosecuted. Mohammed was sentenced to two years in prison. Football, by far the most popular sport in the Kingdom, is their passion. “Football is our life, the third thing after water, after food,” said their father, Ahmed Hubail to the Associated Press. They were left off list for the team’s 2014 World Cup qualifiers, although Peter Taylor, the English coach, has said he would not rule out adding them at some point. Even if the charges are dropped and the national team offers him a spot, Mohammed Hubail is not sure he would wear Bahrain’s red and white jersey: “Sure, I want to play,” he told the AP. “But first we need a solution to all of this. I need to know what is going to happen to me. For our community, the nation, how long are we going to be like this?” Several athletes remain in jail, including brothers Mohammed and Ali Mirza, who played for the national handball team that went to the 2011 World Cup in January, as well as the 16-year-old Iraqi footballer, Zulfiqar Naji. Many others are in legal limbo as they wait for their trials to resume. Prohibited from returning to their government jobs, they are running out of money and struggling to support their families. The Olympic Charter declares that “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” and that “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” It’s hard to see how the Olympic community can welcome Sheikh Nasser. His persecution of athletes is surely not in the Olympic spirit.