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As F1 returns to Bahrain, footballers languish in jail

By James Montague, CNN
  • The Bahrain GP will return to F1 in October
  • The moves comes despite the jailing of high profile athletes
  • Footballer Alaa Hubail is still in jail for involvement in anti-government protests
  • According to activists, more than 150 athletes currently in jail

(CNN) -- Alaa Hubail was once considered a national hero.

The 28-year-old striker had been instrumental in Bahrain's greatest footballing achievement, reaching the semi-finals of the 2004 Asian Cup, where he finished joint top scorer.

His goals also helped Bahrain reach two World Cup qualifying play-offs, failing to reach Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 by just a single goal on both occasions. Remarkable achievements for a country with fewer than a million citizens.

But heroes are made or broken on slim margins.

A lot of people have been targeted, soccer players, basketball players, handball players...
--Nabeel Rajab

In February Hubail ceased to be a national hero to some in Bahrain after he, his brother Mohamed and fellow national team regular Sayed Mohamed Adnan -- who was nominated for the 2009 Asian Player of The Year award -- were arrested following violent February protests that nearly brought down Bahrain's Al Khalifa royal family.

All three were sacked from their club sides and effectively banned from playing on the national team.

The authorities say they were part of illegal, violent protests; international and local human rights groups say that the players, along with more than 150 sportsmen, women and administrators, were being punished for protesting peacefully against the government.

"The violence and abuse is so huge. We have too much work. We can't cope here. A lot of doctors, a lot of people have been targeted, soccer players, basketball players, handball players, teachers, unionists," said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights.

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Rajab was himself arrested in the middle of the night -- on charges he had fabricated a picture showing a dead protester, allegedly killed by the army -- and says he was tortured, threatened with rape and then released.

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Despite the allegations that sports stars have been targeted in Bahrain the FIA, motorsport's governing body, agreed last week to re-instate Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix, which had been postponed after anti-government protests broke out.

"I still don't know under what circumstances the Grand Prix has agreed to come to Bahrain. They have taken the decision on the day two people [allegedly killed during the protests] were buried," Rajab told CNN.

"How will the athletes [in jail] feel knowing that F1 is coming here? Many are in detention waiting military trial. I will urge all the drivers, journalists, everyone, to stay in solidarity with us by not going to this event. This will be the sport of the oppressor's regime."

The imposition of martial law heralded a crackdown by the authorities following more than four months of protests against the regime -- a Sunni royal family ruling over a majority Shia Muslim population who wanted greater democracy and accountability.

The royal family saw it as an Iranian funded and inspired plot. Troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, under a Gulf Cooperation Council mandate, were invited to maintain calm, fearing protests would spread to their own restive, minority Shia enclaves.

Since the beginning of the turmoil in Bahrain, about 30 people have been killed, according to figures from the government, opposition figures and human rights groups. Opposition and human rights groups say more than 1,000 have been detained.

"The players have obviously been in custody after their involvement in the demonstrations and acts of violence against governmental officials was proven," Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa al Khalifa, vice president of the Bahraini Football Association and a member of the Gulf kingdom's royal family, told CNN.

There has so far been no action from FIFA, football's international governing body, which has strict rules banning political interference in the running of football.

"The case does not apply here," said Al Khalifa, dismissing the charge that the arrests broke FIFA's rules on political interference.

"The players have been arrested, investigated and detained for having opposed the general laws and bylaws of the country. The fact that they happen to be footballers and national team players is highly irrelevant...If tolerance was shown to those who happen to be athletes, it will result in the disintegrating of the equality under the law spirit [sic], a matter that goes beyond everything our revered government stands for."

Their involvement in the demonstrations and acts of violence against governmental officials was proven
--Sheikh Khalifa, Bahrain FA

When contacted by CNN, a FIFA spokesman said: "FIFA has not yet received official information on this issue... FIFA, but also the whole sporting movement, considers it crucial to defend the autonomy of sport and the independence of sporting bodies. The use and abuse of football for political purposes, in any shape or form is a practice which FIFA would actively seek to sanction."

Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation who challenged Sepp Blatter for FIFA's presidency before being suspended on bribery allegations, did not reply when contacted by phone before his suspension.

According to Keir Radnedge, a former editor of World Soccer and expert on the inner workings of FIFA -- football's governing body -- has been quick to suspend football associations when governments have attempted interfere in their running. In recent years Iran, Iraq, Bosnia and Yemen have all been punished for mixing sport and politics. Bahrain has not been sanctioned.

"FIFA has been firm with nations in Africa, Asia, CONCACAF [the confederation of North American, Central American and Caribbean football] and is quick to threaten any Europeans such as Poland, Ukraine [for political interference in football]. The catch is that political interference is more obviously recognizable in some countries than in others," he told CNN.

"But there was a [FIFA presidential] election around the corner and neither man could afford to upset a royal family which is a powerful player in sport in the region."

Regardless of what happens next, one thing is clear: The most talented group of footballers in the 40 years since Bahrain's independence has been damaged inexorably.

When former international coach Milan Macala was preparing for the first leg of a World Cup playoff against New Zealand in 2009, he spoke of how the national team had been a symbol of unity. "We do not talk of religion here, we do not talk of Sunni and Shia," he told CNN at the training ground.

Now, that symbol of unity is gone, replaced by recriminations and resentment. Hubail and his national teammates remain in jail.

"The silence of FIFA and of the AFC raises a question," said Rajab.

"Either they [the Bahraini FA] have a green signal or they [FIFA and the AFC] accept such violence against football players. Footballers have rights like any other human to be a citizen. It's time for FIFA to raise their voice. The people of Bahrain are looking at them and asking: 'Where are you?'"