From heroes to pariahs: Bahrain athletes pay a steep price

They believed peacefully protesting would not carry any repercussions. Then they were arrested and jailed. 'What happened to me was a cost of fame,' says Alaa Hubail.

Brothers and former Bahrain national football team players Mohammed, left, and Alaa Hubail were arrested after joining peaceful protests with other athletes.
Powered by automated translation

When civil unrest broke out in Bahrain, brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail stayed in their family compound and refused to take part. They feared their reputations as top footballers would make them easy targets for police.

But Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa soon came out in support of peaceful protests. It was the green light the Hubail brothers were looking for and they joined a march of several hundred athletes to Pearl Square, the epicentre of Shiite-led protests against Bahrain's Sunni rulers.

It was a terrible miscalculation.

Two weeks after the February march, Alaa Hubail was interrogated on state-run television and called a traitor. He and his brother were arrested a day later along with Ali Saeed Abdullah, the national team goalkeeper, as they trained at their Al Alhi club.

They were among six players from the national team who were put in prison, where they say they were tortured for taking part in the protests.

Mohammed Hubail was tried and sentenced to two years in jail; he is free while he appeals the sentence.

Alaa's case is pending. They have gone from celebrities to pariahs among Bahrain's pro-government faction - barred from playing on the national team and blacklisted from the local league for what they contend was simply following the advice of the Crown Prince.

"I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can," Alaa Hubail, a prolific striker, who was the top scorer in the 2004 Asian Cup, said at his home in the Shiite-dominated village of Sitra.

"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."

The backlash against the Hubail brothers was part of a government effort to silence opposition to the regime. Besides the arrest of hundreds of citizens, students were expelled from universities, government employees were fired, and doctors and nurses put on trial for treating injured protesters.

Protesters were denigrated and interrogated on state television and accused of anti-state conspiracies in trials before a secretive security court. Even some of the slightest infractions were dealt with harshly. A 20-year-old woman was sentenced to a year in prison for reading a poem critical of Bahrain's king.

Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain's Shiite majority took to the streets on February 14 to demand the country's more than 200-year-old Sunni dynasty ease its control on top government and security posts. After days of mostly peaceful protests, the regime cracked down on the protesters, resulting in the deaths of more than 30 people and the detention of thousands.

"The Kingdom of Bahrain does not advocate the abuse of human rights," Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority said in a statement. "The allegations of mistreatment or torture of medical personnel, and others currently in the courts, for alleged crimes in the Kingdom of Bahrain are of grave concern to us."

Of all the demonstrators, athletes would have seemed to be the least likely to be targeted. Many had close ties to members of the royal family and were involved in the regime's campaign to raise its global profile through sports.

It was a strategy that resulted in the kingdom securing the region's first Formula One race - the Bahrain Grand Prix - and being added to the European Tour schedule with the Volvo Golf Champions tournament.

The protests, however, forced the cancellation of this year's Bahrain GP and the next Volvo golf event.

And having athletes take to the streets appears to have touched a nerve among several ministers, who launched attacks in state media calling the sportsmen disloyal and ungrateful after many had been rewarded with cushy jobs, houses or luxury cars.

Then, the arrests began.

More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees from football to table tennis were jailed after a special committee, chaired by Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the Bahrain Football Association chairman, identified them from photographs of the protests. A half-dozen football clubs, all from Shiite villages, were fined US$20,000 (Dh73,000) each and remain suspended.

Most athletes have since been released, but those interviewed by the Associated Press remained stunned by the government's actions - especially the jail terms, the alleged beatings and the charges of being agents of Iran or Hizbollah.

Many spoke reluctantly, saying they feared their comments could get them longer jail sentences, but most said the time had come to speak out after all they had endured.

"I only went to the roundabout for 30 minutes. I never said bad things about the government, especially the King," said Tariq Al-Farsani, a well-known former bodybuilder, who was arrested on April 15 and spent about two months in jail. "The sports people only went there because they want freedom for the people. Everybody went there. It wasn't a big thing."

All the athletes interviewed told the same story: They are now jobless, running out of money and living in a legal limbo.

Most have not been allowed to return to government jobs, all are banned from representing the nation and are awaiting a date for their trials to resume.

"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," said Saleh Hasan, a nine-time Bahrain table tennis champion, who was banned as a national coach and lost his job at the Ministry of Education. "Seventy days in jail. This is their appreciation to me. 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."

Several athletes are still in jail, including brothers Mohammed and Ali Mirza, who played for the national handball team that went to the 2011 World Cup in January, and the 16-year-old Iraqi footballer, Zulfiqar Naji, who played for Al Muharraq's junior team.

In a statement about the athletes, Eyad Hamza, the director of Clubs Affairs at Bahrain's General Organisation for Youth and Sports, said no one was jailed because of their profession, but that it was his "understanding that people have been detained for various reasons to do with the maintenance of public order or threats to national security". He said Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry is investigating the allegations, including claims of torture, and a report is due at the end of October.

As to whether athletes can return to their teams, he said this is a matter for individual clubs and team managers to sort out, not the government.

"The idea that there is some kind of conspiracy against sports people is ludicrous," Hamza 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]."

Like most Bahrain athletes, the Hubail brothers say they never dabbled in politics. Football, by far the most popular sport on the island, was all that mattered to them.

"Football is our life, the third thing after water, after food," said their father, Ahmed Hubail, as he talked in the sparsely decorated family room of their two-story villa.

"Me, too. I'm an old man and I play football."

Pressure from Fifa helped gain the brothers' release in late June, but their ordeal did not end there. They were put on trial for protesting.

They were left off the list of players for the team's 2014 World Cup qualifiers, although Peter Taylor, the coach, has said he would not rule out adding them at some point.

The uncertainty over their fate has left the family angry and bitter - much like many Shiites in their neighbourhood of narrow lanes and mostly drab, one-story homes.

Neighbourhoods like this have become the centre of the lingering protest movement against the government, places where the walls are alive with graffiti denouncing the royal family and a game of cat and mouse ensues nightly between truckloads of heavily armed riot police and stone-throwing youths.

On a recent night, the loud booms of stun grenades mingled alongside the sounds of elderly women banging huge pots in a sign the protest was about to start.

Drivers beeped their horns in alliance with the protesters as the acrid smell of tear gas drifted across rooftops.

The Hubail brothers are not taking part in the protests any more and once again spend most of their days inside the family compound.

Alaa has recently signed a deal to play for an Omani football club, but Mohammed is still searching for a team. He refused to return to his former club, Al Alhi, after they insisted he sign a statement admitting his crimes.

Mohammed still cannot get over his treatment in prison - claiming he was blindfolded, handcuffed, kicked and beaten with hoses by the police - and is angry that neither the executives from Al Alhi nor any of his fellow players stood up for him.

He has begun to question whether he will ever play football again.

Even if the charges are dropped and the national team offers him a spot, Mohammed Hubail is not sure he wants to wear Bahrain's red and white jersey.

"Sure, I want to play. But first we need a solution to all of this," he said.

"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?"