Bahrain sentences 3 athletes for anti-government protests
James M. Dorsey
In this file photo from Nov. 19, hundreds of protesters rally in Sitra, Bahrain. A military court has sentenced three Shiite athletes to one year in prison for participating in anti-government protests. AP photoA Bahrain military court has sentenced three Shiite athletes to one year in prison for participating in anti-government protests despite a pledge from the king to implement an international fact-finding commission’s recommendations that included moving trials to civilian courts.
Goalkeeper Ali Said; Tareq al-Fursani, a bodybuilder who has won multiple Asian championship gold medals, and national basketball team player Hassan al-Dirazi were tried by a military court because they are also employees of the Bahrain Defense Forces, according to Mohsen al-Alawi, a lawyer who was present at the announcement of the verdict.
The three sportsmen were sentenced on charges of illegal congregation, incitement of hatred against Bahrain’s political systems and failing to obey orders banning their involvement in politics.
The sportsmen were among some 150 football players, athletes and sports executives arrested or fired early this year from their positions in a brutal government crackdown that squashed the protests that were part of a wave of popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that have already toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Unlike in Syria and elsewhere the region, Bahrain succeeded in squashing the protests or at least moving them out of the capital and into the island’s villages. Some 30 people were killed in the crackdown.
Backed by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain has asserted that the demonstrations were instigated by Shiite Iran in a bid to sow sectarian discord and destabilize the predominantly Shiite Gulf island, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim majority.
The crackdown involved the imposition of martial law for nearly three months, the sacking of 2,000 people from government jobs and the detention of 3,000 others, as well as military trials for several hundred. Al-Alawi said 64 athletes were among those put on trial, including brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, who are national football team stars. Alaa Hubail has said he and his brother had been abused and humiliated during their detention. Mohammed Hubail is appealing a two-year sentence.
Several months ago, defender Sayed Mohamed Adnan fled to Australia, where he joined Brisbane Roar, after having spent three months in prison during where he asserts he was beaten and tortured. Adnan said last month that charges against him had not been dropped and that he feared legal action if he returned to Bahrain.
The national team players have all been barred from playing on the national team or in Bahrain’s domestic league.
A fact-finding commission headed by international rights lawyers and endorsed by the Bahraini government concluded last month that detainees had suffered systematic abuse during the crackdown. The commission, however, concluded that there was no official policy to abuse protesters. Five people, however, were tortured to death and other detainees suffered electric shocks and beatings with rubber hoses and wires.
Bahrain last month released a teenage Iraqi football player detained in April in what the government said was a goodwill gesture to mark the Kurban bayram holiday. Zulfiqar Naji, who turned 17 in prison, was released as one of more than 300 prisoners freed to mark the holiday.
Opposition leaders had hoped Bahrain’s king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, would capitalize on the report with a major goodwill gesture such as a further prisoner release. Instead, Sheikh Hamad said he would establish a commission to consider implementing the fact-finding commission’s recommendations. Bahrain has since hired controversial U.S. police chief John Timoney, known for his hard-line toward protesters, and British police boss John Yates to oversee reforms of Bahrain’s security forces.
By including athletes in its crackdown, Bahrain has effectively shot itself in its foot. Like other Gulf states, Bahrain sees sports as a vehicle to project itself on to the world stage. It succeeded in attracting the region’s first Formula One race, the Bahrain Grand Prix, and in becoming part of this year’s Volvo Golf Champions European tours. Both events were canceled, however, because of the protests.