Awaiting trial and barred from playing: Alaa Hubail (Source: CarbonatedTV)
By James M. Dorsey
When Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came out in support of peaceful anti-government protests earlier this year, national soccer team players and brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail believed the time had come for them to add their voices to demands for greater political freedom and economic opportunity.
The two star players had been until then reluctant to join mass protests on the Gulf island, afraid that their popularity and reputations would make them targets. The crown prince’s statement suggested they had nothing to fear. They joined a march in February of several hundred athletes to Pearl Square in the Bahraini capital of Manama, the focal point of the Shiite Muslim-led protests against the Gulf nation's minority Sunni Muslim rulers.
That proved to be a major mistake as the 31-year old Alaa Hubail recounted in an interview with The Associated Press’s Mike Casey, his first with the foreign press since he and his brother were arrested, abused and humiliated during the government’s brutal suppression of the protests.
Two weeks after the demonstration, Ala’a was denounced as a traitor on state-run television. A day later he, Mohammed, 29, and national team goalkeeper Ali Saeed Abdullah were arrested while training at their Al Alhi soccer club in the Bahraini capital.
Three other national team players were also detained among 150 Bahraini athletes and sports officials who were sacked or arrested for participating in the protests. The arrests were part of a government sweep that targeted medics, government employees and activists, many of who said they were tortured while in detention.
The arrests and sackings were ordered by Bahrain Football Association (BFA) chairman Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, who headed a committee that identified them from photos of the protests. Six Shiite soccer clubs were fined $20,000 each and suspended from the domestic league.
Sheikh Salman’s involvement in the crackdown has privately prompted questions within the Asian Football Confederation because he is a frontrunner to succeed disgraced Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam as the organization’s president. The AFC last month postponed initiating the process of electing a new president to give Mr. Bin Hammam time to appeal a world soccer body FIFA ban for life on involvement in football because of his alleged engagement in bribery. AFC officials suggest privately that electing Sheikh Salman would send the wrong signal.
Mohamed was tried by a Bahraini security court and convicted to two years in prison, but later release pending his appeal after world soccer body FIFA questioned the BFA about the crackdown. The BFA denied that any soccer player or official had been disciplined or arrested because of partcipttaion in the protests.
Alaa nonetheless has a court case that has yet to go to court. He and the five other national team players have been barred from playing on the national team or in Bahrain’s domestic league.
"I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can. But I won't forget the experience which I went through for all my life. What happened to me was a cost of fame. Participating in the athletes' rally was not a crime,” ," Alaa, nicknamed the Golden Boy after he was named in 2004 Asian Footballer of the Year told The Associated Press at his home in the predominantly Shiite village of Sitra.
The protests were part of the wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike in Syria and elsewhere the region, Bahrain succeeded to squash the protests with brute force. Thousands were detained and some 30 people were killed.
By including athletes in the crackdown, Bahrain 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 however cancelled because of the protests.
AP said that Alaa and other athletes interviewed feared that speaking to the press would earn them harsher prison sentences, but that they felt they had no choice but to speak out about their experience in detention were they allegedly were beaten and accused of being agents of Iran or Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia-cum-political party in Lebanon.
"I only went to the (Pearl) roundabout for 30 minutes. I never said bad things about the government, especially the king. The sports people only went there because they want freedom for the people. Everybody went there. It wasn't a big thing,” ," Tariq al-Farsani, a former bodybuilder who was arrested April 15 and spent some two months in jail, told AP.
Mr. Al-Farsani, like the others interviewed by AP, said they were barred from returning to their jobs, unable to find new employment, and living in a legal no-man’s land.
"When I saw all this happen to me, I feel like I'm nothing. They don't care about anyone who served the country, who made history for this country," Saleh Hasan, a nine-time Bahrain pingpong champion who was banned as a national coach and lost his job at the Ministry of Education, told AP.
"Seventy days in jail. This is their appreciation to me," he said. "I'm thinking a lot of ending my sportsman career. ... The things they do to me has given me another chance to think. All my history was a big mistake for this country if they will treat us like this."
AP said that several athletes remained in prison, including brothers Mohammed and Ali Mirza, who played for the country's handball team that in January went to the 2011 World Cup, and 16-year-old Iraqi soccer player Zulfiqar Naji, who played for Al Muharraq's junior team.
Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority, in a statement quoted by AP, said no one had been jailed because of their profession, but that it "was their understanding that people have been detained for various reasons to do with the maintenance of public order or threats to national security."
The authority said that an independent commission of inquiry was investigating the allegations, including claims of torture and would issue a report in late October. It said the future of athletes was an issue for clubs and team managers, not the government.
"The idea that there is some kind of conspiracy against sports people is ludicrous," the authority said. "Bahrain is proud of its patriotic sports men and women and looks forward to seeing their talents on display at the forthcoming Gulf Cooperation Council Games in Bahrain (in October)."
Many of the soccer players are trying to move on with their lives. National team defender Sayed Mohammed Adnan went into voluntary exile and has joined Australian A-League champion Brisbane Roar. Alaa recently signed a deal to play for an Omani football club.
His brother Mohammed is still looking for a place to go. He rejected an offer to return to Al Ahli because the club demanded that he sign a statement admitting to his crimes. Mohammed told AP he was still trying to come to grips with the abuse he says he suffered in prison where he allegedly was blindfolded, handcuffed and kicked and beaten with hoses. He wonders whether he wants to return to soccer and says he is not sure he’d again want to wear Bahrain’s red and white colour if he were asked to re-join the national team.
"Sure, I want to play. But first we need a solution to all of this," he told AP. "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?"
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.