Bahrain detains football teams and scores of players and athletes

Bahrain detains football teams and scores of players and athletes

Bahrain detains football teams and scores of players and athletes

Bahraini protestors hold national flags during an anti-government protest in the village of Shakhora, west of Manama, in this photo dated Jan. 3, 2014. AFP photo

Bahrain has detained a football team as well as scores of other football players and athletes since security forces squashed a popular uprising almost three years ago, according to human rights activists, journalists and officials.

In one of the latest rounds of detentions, authorities lifted three football and two handball players of al-Ittifaq Maqaba, a sports club in Diraz, a hot spot of continued protest against the government, the sources said. They said the athletes – football players Bahr Mohammed Jawad, Hassan Abdullah Marhoum, Qassem Habib Abdullah and handball players Ahmed Abdel Jalil and Ibrahim Juma’a – had been arrested in a Dec. 5, 3 am raid on Diraz, one of the frequent sweeps of the area. They said the athletes were among an estimated ten people taken away by security forces. The athletes were suspected of participating in an illegal gathering, the activists and journalists said.

A sixth athlete, Ahmed Fallah, a goalkeeper for al-Budaiya FC in the coastal town of Budaiya, which like its neighbor Diraz, remains a hot bed of anti-government sentiment, was last month detained around the same time as the others, but has since been released.

The five detained athletes join an estimated 50 sports people being held in prison since the 2011 uprising. Their detentions are in addition to 150 athletes and sports officials, including three national football team players, who were arrested or fired from their jobs during the crackdown on the revolt. Most of those were quickly released and reinstated. Two of three national team players, who were at the time publicly denounced on television as spies, traitors and asserted that they had been tortured in prison, play for local clubs but were not allowed to rejoin the national squad.

‘Revenge’ detentions

Human rights activists and journalists suspect the athletes are being targeted by Bahrain’s minority Sunni Muslim minority because of their Shiite backgrounds and their participation in protests demanding equal rights for the Gulf island’s majority Shiite population. Peaceful protests in 2011 at times turned violent as a result of the government’s brutal crackdown and its portrayal of the uprising as sectarian rather than political.

“One look at the list of detained athletes reveals the sectarian nature of this revenge. They all belong to the majority Shiite community that is demanding democracy,” said Faisal Hayyat, a sports journalist and activist.

It is unclear if the detained athletes had participated in ongoing anti-government protests or whether their arrests were arbitrary. Bahrain Chief of Public Security Tarik Al Hassan asserted last month that on average 90 percent of all legal peaceful protests turn violent. Activists said at least some of the athletes may have been incarcerated because members of their family had taken part in protests. Mr. Hayyat said most football players refrained from political activity because they were financially dependent on the sport.

An independent fact-finding commission made up of international rights lawyers that was endorsed by the Bahrain government concluded in November 2011 that those detained during the uprising had suffered systematic abuse during the crackdown. The commission said, however, there was no official policy to abuse protesters, but five people had been tortured to death and other detainees had suffered electric shocks and beatings with rubber hoses and wires.

Mr. Hayyat’s picture was flashed on the screen of the television broadcast during which national football star Alaa Hubail and other athletes, including his brother Mohammed, were denounced. Mr. Hayyat was arrested three days later, imprisoned for 84 days, and according to his own testimony, tortured.

“That Bahraini crowd that loved you, who carried you and chanted your name, 30-40,000 fans at the stadium calling your name, did you forget them in this moment?” the show’s host asked Alaa during the broadcast over the telephone.

“No, I didn’t forget them,” Alaa responded limply.

“Yes you did,” the host shot back.

In a telephone call to the broadcast Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, head of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sport as well as its Olympic Committee and fourth son of King Hamad, congratulated the show for its denunciation of the players. “Well done, guys. Today, we at the Organization of Sports and Youth have nothing to do with politics and are concerned with sports and brotherly competition… People have involved themselves in matters and have lost the love of their fans… ‘Anyone who called for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician — whatever he is — he will be held accountable. Today is judgment day. Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape,’” Sheikh Nasser said.

Torture room

A day after the broadcast, masked state security police men arrived at the national football team’s training ground. Alaa and his fellow national football team player and brother Mohammed were taken to what Alaa described to ESPN as an unknown place. “They put me in the room for beatings. One of the people who hit me said: ‘I’m going to break your legs.’ They knew who we were. There was a special room for the torture.”

His words were echoed in ESPN interviews by table tennis champion Anwar al-Makki and Mr. Hayyat. “They would bring an electric cable, blindfold the person and put them on the floor,” Mr. Makki said. “I was blindfolded. I couldn’t see what was happening. He put a cable in my hand and said, ‘Now I’ll turn the electricity on,’” Mr. Hayyat added.

Among those detained since is the whole squad of the al-Ekar Youth Center in the village of al-Ekar. The 17-member team was detained in October 2012 in a security operation following a bombing in which a police officer was killed. Opposition groups said the arrests had been arbitrary.

Other detained athletes include al-Ahli and national football youth team players Ahmed Hassan Abdul Wahab, Younis Hader and Jaffar al-Asfoor, national youth handball team player Ali Almolani, beach volleyball midfielder Ridha Abdul Hussain, and Bahrain gymnastics champion Hussein Abdul Ghani. Mr. Abdul Wahab was sentenced to five years in prison for attacking a security patrol in Nuwaidrat. Mr. Hader was arrested a year ago when he sought to renews his passport while Mr. al-Asfoor was picked up while swimming. Mr. Abdul Ghani was sent to jail for burning a police car while Mr. Almolani was sentenced to three years by a national security court for his role in anti-government protests in a university. Mr. Abdul Hussain was imprisoned for four years on charges of burning tires and organizing illegal protests.

Al-Ittihad handball players Murtadha Salah Darwish, and Baqir al-Shabani were jailed for three years and Jassim Ramadan to eight years for participation in protests in Bahrain’s financial district.
Bahrain Jiu-jitsu champion Mohammed Mirza was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of having participated in the kidnapping of a policemen. Journalists and human rights activists asserted Mr. Mirza had signed his confession after being tortured. Race driver Hamad al-Fahd was arrested during the uprising and sentenced by a military court to life in prison. Beach volleyball midfielder Reza Abdul Hussain was sentenced to four years in prison for participating in anti-government protests while in the military.

Two dozen fans of al-Nejmeh SC were arrested earlier this year when they responded to pro-government chanting during a match with a popular Shiite phrase, “Praise God, his messenger Prophet Mohammed and the prophet’s descendants.”

Football officials and critics of the government say football and other sports suffer from a lack of planning as a result of politicization. “There are no sports since the uprising. Matches serve as PR to show Bahrain is back to normal,” Mr. Hayyat said. “We have lost qualified managers. As a result, football suffers,” added a football official.