Bahrain’s athletes behind bars

April 14, 2011

Barack Obama has maintained a shameful silence about repression by a Gulf ally.

A'ALA HUBAIL is a legend in the world of Bahraini soccer. In 2004, along with his brother Mohamed, he led the national team on a rollicking VCU-esque run into the Asian Cup semifinals. Hubail then became the first Bahraini player to win the prestigious Golden Boot Award after scoring five goals against the continent's best team.

Now, the winner of the Golden Boot has gotten the boot--he was expelled from the national squad and arrested after news cameras caught him at an "anti-government" protest aimed at Bahrain's royal family. His soccer-playing brother, who stood alongside him at a peaceful protest across from Bahrain's shoot-first army and the imported armed forces of Saudi Arabia, was also sacked from the team and put in custody. Both brothers, along with two other players, were handcuffed and frog-marched off the practice field in front of shocked teammates.

According to the Times of London, Bahrain's state news program had focused on the Hubail brothers at the demonstration to "shame the sports stars" for taking part in the protest--it referred to them and all the demonstrators as "stray hyenas."

Columnist: Dave Zirin

The state news report didn't mention that A'ala Hubail is a trained paramedic and EMT who was also acting as a volunteer nurse at the protest. Considering the dozens killed and hundreds injured by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's armed forces since the protests began, he should be lauded as a true international hero. Instead, he is behind bars.

The Hubail brothers were the most prominent athletes affected in what has become an ugly crackdown on the country's jocks for justice. Bahrain--a country run by a royal family so decayed with gluttony and corruption that they could be honorary Trumps--has announced that 200 athletes have been indefinitely suspended on charges of "supporting the popular revolution in the country." Among them are nationally known basketball, volleyball and handball players.

The Associated Press quoted a government official, speaking under the cloak of anonymity, saying that these athletes have been branded "against the government" for having supported "anti-government" protests. No other specifics were given. All 200 have also been banned from any international play. All 200, like the overwhelming majority of demonstrators, are part of the country's oppressed Shia Muslim majority.

SHAMEFULLY, YET completely unsurprisingly, the Bahrain Football Association backed the move, saying: "The suspension falls under misconduct, and the breaching of the rules and regulations of sporting clubs...not to engage in political affairs."

Also, shamefully, yet completely unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama and the U.S. government have said nothing. As Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, wrote: "President Obama...loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain."

This isn't just oversight or happenstance. Bahrain happily houses the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and has pledged to do so for another 50 years. It appears that this favor has given Bahrain the right to spill the blood of peaceful protesters with impunity.

There is no no-fly zone over Bahrain, and no emergency UN Security Council meeting. There are no breathless comparisons by news columnists of the Bahraini royal family with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Darth Vader or Sauron. Instead, with a lockstep consistency that would impress the state media systems of the old Eastern bloc, U.S. politicians of both parties--and the American media--have chosen to remain silent.

This isn't the first revolt in Bahrain's history, but it is by far the most serious. Once the wave started across the region, Bahrain was an obvious place where the sentiment of rebellion against autocracy would find fertile ground. I spoke to Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report, who said:

Because it is located atop the hydrocarbon jackpot of the world in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain has the image of a wealthy nation. In fact, a large part of the native population is poor. That poverty plus the sectarianism, chauvinism and tyranny of the royal family have made the country restive for decades. The 2011 revolt is but the largest and most brutally repressed of a series of popular struggles for justice.

But just because the political class and the front page of your newspaper have surrendered their morality and said nothing doesn't mean the sports page should follow suit. Every soccer writer with a pulse should be calling for the release of the Hubail brothers. Every sports union should release statements saying that they stand with their 200 brethren and want them reinstituted immediately and without delay. Every player who believes in the concept of fair play should call upon the Bahraini royal family to cease and desist.

The Royals want to practice their repression in shadows. We can offer light. Sports teams are often referred to as families. Well, when members of our family are being abused, you say something. Bahrain's royal butchers are banking on our silence. But when silence equals death, it's no longer an option.

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