Bahrain Closes Shiite Soccer Clubs and Detains Players

Bahraini authorities have detained three players in the country’s national soccer team while six clubs have withdrawn from domestic leagues following widespread anti-government protests, according to Bahrain’s governing soccer body.

The Bahrain Football Association (BFA) announcement came as a pro-democracy group, Youth of Feb. 14 Revolution, launched a Facebook campaign urging Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone not to reschedule the Bahrain Grand Prix until "until basic human rights and freedoms are restored." Bahrain has until May 1 to decide if it wants to reschedule the auto race, which was called off March 13 because of the unrest.

The moves against the soccer players are part of a government crackdown on dissent following protests that have resulted in journalists, bloggers, doctors, lawyers and activists being detained. More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees also have been suspended since April 5 for their alleged involvement in protests against the country's minority Sunni Muslim rulers.

BFA Vice President Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, a member of the country’s royal family,  acknowledged that the three players had been detained but provided no further details. He said the clubs - two in the top division and four in the second - had withdrawn from the league, which resumed two weeks ago because of "pressure from Shiite political groups."

Al Khalifa said all could be fined for refusing to play and possibly face other sanctions, including relegation to a lower division. "Some of the clubs during the problems refrained from participating," Al Khalifa said. "We haven't suspended anyone. They are just not participating. There is a fine and punishment, of course."

A Bahraini human right group, however, said the clubs from mostly Shiite villages were suspended last week from the league for two years and fined $20,000. Along with soccer teams, the clubs sponsor a range of sports in their communities.

Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said clubs had stopped playing during the protests partly because they felt it was too dangerous and also in honour of protesters killed in the government’s brutal crackdown.

Al-Maskati said the government imposed the suspensions and fines as soon as the clubs announced that they would resume playing. "They could not work normally when protesters are killed in their villages. The authorities want to tell them that you are supporting the protests and this is the punishment. It's not fair. Just because you are a sportsman doesn't mean it's wrong to be political. Everyone in the world has ideas about something. Everyone has the right to get involved," Al-Maskati said.

Officials from three of the clubs - Al Malkiya, Al Ittihad and Sitra - confirmed the six had been fined for refusing to participate in the league and that the top two clubs, Al Malkiya and Al Shabab, were relegated and drew additional fines for refusing to take part in the GCC Club Championship.


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