Bahrain releases teenage Iraqi soccer player

Iraqi demonstrators hold pictures of soccer player Zulfiqar Naji

By James M. Dorsey

Bahrain has released a teenage Iraqi soccer player detained in April in a crackdown on anti-government protesters in what the government said was a goodwill gesture to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Abdulameer Naji, a former professional soccer player and current board member of Iraqi club Al Zawra, told The Associated Press that his son, Zulfiqar Naji, who turned 17 in prison was released on Saturday as one of more than 300 prisoners freed to mark the holiday.

Zulfiqar, who played on the junior team for Bahraini club Al Muharraq, was seized from their home in Bahrain in April on suspicion of having participated in mass protests against the Sunni monarchy.

Iraq had pressured Bahrain to release the teenage player. Iraqi relations have deteriorated sharply with the six oil-rich monarchies of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the wake of the Sunni Muslim-led Bahraini government’s crackdown on predominantly Shiite Muslim anti-government protests early this year.

Bahrain backed by the GCC has asserted that the demonstrations were instigated by Shiite Iran in a bid to destabilize the island and sow sectarian discord.

Zulfiqar was one of some 150 soccer players, athletes and sports executives who had allegedly participated in the demonstrations arrested or fired from their positions as part of the government’s crackdown that squashed the protests.

Among those detained were three national soccer team players, including brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail. Alaa has said that he and his brother had been abused and humiliated during their detention.
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.
Several athletes, including two handball players, have been tried and sentenced to prison. Mohamed Hubail was tried by a Bahraini security court and convicted to two years in prison, but later released pending his appeal after world soccer body FIFA questioned the Bahrain Football Association about the crackdown.

Alaa’s case 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.

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.

Many of the affected soccer players are meanwhile 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.

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.


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