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How Bahrain Uses Sport to Whitewash Legacy of Torture and Human Rights Abuses, The Guardian

2017-07-29 - 11:25 p

Bahrain Mirror: On the following day the FIFA congress was held in Bahrain's Manama (May 11), the Guardian met people who have suffered beatings and torture during years of brutal repression by the country's rulers; they said that thousands of people accused of agitating against the regime are now in prison. The Shia Muslim population in Bahrain have long complained that they are discriminated against by the Khalifa regime, which adheres to the Sunni branch of Islam. The government has responded to campaigns for greater democracy and equality with increasingly thuggish persecution.

Just a few miles from the security-ringed convention centre where the rituals of the Fifa congress were accommodated, the sinister side of Bahrain was in open view, where mostly Shia towns including Diraz, strongholds of protest and opposition to the Khalifa regime, were blockaded, armoured police vehicles parked menacingly at the entrances.

That day, 12 May, Sheikh Nasser and King Hamad were in England, hosted by the Queen at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, where two prestige events were sponsored by Bahrain and Sheikh Nasser himself presented the King's Cup.

The Guardian noted that just 11 days later, the contrast can hardly have been greater between those royal pleasantries, and the Bahrain regime's latest bloody crackdown on its citizens. While Nibali was winning the Giro's most iconic and talked-about stage, up and over the Stelvio pass in the Alps of northern Italy, on 23 May Bahrain's security forces finally ended their long stand-off, and stormed Diraz.

The crisis there had resulted from the regime outlawing the main Shia opposition party Al-Wefaq last year, stripping Bahrain's most senior Shia priest, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, of citizenship. According to experts appointed by the United Nations office of the high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR), the Bahrain forces used "excessive and lethal force to disperse peaceful protestors" - not for the first time - resulting in five deaths which the OHCHR condemned as unlawful killings. "Over the past year, there has been a sharp deterioration of the human rights situation in the country," the OHCR experts said.

The British daily highlighted that the 2011 grand prix was moved from Bahrain after the government's notoriously brutal response then to the mass demonstrations at the Pearl roundabout in Manama, but returned in 2012 and has continued to lend prestige to the regime every year since. After that 2011 crackdown the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), appointed by the government itself, found that the security services' actions resulted in the deaths of 13 civilians, due mostly to the use of "excessive and unnecessary lethal force", and that five more people in the custody of the Ministry of the Interior died having been tortured. During that repression, Sheikh Nasser himself called publicly for the punishment of sportspeople who had taken part in demonstrations, and retribution did follow.

Sheikh Nasser is a brigadier-general in the Bahrain army and commander of the royal guard, although not a member of the government or council of ministers, to which King Hamad has appointed 12 members of his Khalifa family. A sports enthusiast, Sheikh Nasser occupies the most senior positions in several of the country's sports bodies, including as president of the Olympic committee.

The BICI reported that an athlete named in that programme was arrested the following day. A week later, Nasser ordered a committee of inquiry to investigate which sportspeople had taken part, and to punish them. More than 150 professional sportspeople were widely reported to have been arrested, detained, tortured, imprisoned or excluded from their sports for taking part in the pro‑democracy demonstrations.

Since the protests, according to a report in June 2012 by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) based in Berlin, allegations were made in Bahrain court proceedings by two people who claim that Sheikh Nasser was personally involved in beating and torturing them during the 2011 crackdown.

The campaign groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have persistently criticised the Bahrain regime for its repression, argue that its association with glamour sport is used to "launder" a more wholesome image for the country. Like other gulf states, Bahrain is contemplating a future without plentiful income from oil, and has developed an economic plan to 2030 based on diversifying its industries and attracting tourists.

Amnesty International UK's head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, says: "It seems pretty clear that the Bahraini authorities have stepped up efforts to associate the country with major sporting events as glitzy cover for an ever-worsening human rights crackdown. For the most part, Bahrain's harnessing of the glamour and prestige of sport has helped deflect attention from the arrests of peaceful critics, reports of tortured detainees, unfair trials and death sentences."

The Guardian stressed that these horrors have been perpetrated in Bahrain during the modern era in which sports governing bodies state a commitment to human rights, and to discouraging repressive regimes from using sporting events as cover.

Sheikh Nasser's legal representatives replied to the Guardian's questions by vehemently denying that he had been personally involved in torture in 2011, but did not offer any explanation for his call in 2011 for punishment and "a wall to fall" on protestors.

None of the people with whom the Guardian talked in Bahrain the day after the Fifa congress felt able to be quoted now. They said the climate of repression is so fearful that they and their families are in danger of arrest, torture and potential long prison sentences if they say anything considered critical of the regime. For them Bahrain is not the glamorous haven of sporting values presented by teams and athletes who bear its name; it is an island, as Sheikh Nasser himself said, from which there is no escape.

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