Bahraini sport sends athletes to jail; IOC stays quiet, asking oppressors for advise
Bahraini athletes have been jailed and suspended for not being loyal to the government. Photo: Protesters in the streets of Bahrain by Flickr User Al Jazeera English used under a Creative Commons License 2.0
While the world has worried more about the situation in Egypt, Libya and Syria, the plight of the population in Bahrain has been left comparatively unattended. This may partly be due to the fact that the protest actions there started out relatively peacefully and were followed by some signs that the government would be prepared to reach out and accommodate some of the demands. The main reasons for the demonstrations are the claims for increased political freedom and economic equality, especially from the Shiite majority of the population.
Bahrain has been ruled with an iron fist for well over 200 years by an autocratic Sunni monarchy. However, even the royal family has appeared to be divided between younger, more democratically inclined members, such as the Crown Prince, and a majority of hardliners among the older family members.
Then there is also the situation where Bahrain is, at least geographically, 'caught between' in the intense and perennial clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia. So the initial restraint soon came to an end, and the Bahraini regime, urged and reinforced by the nervous Saudis, began to clamp down on any protest actions in a suddenly very violent manner.
Moreover, the government also started applying very shrewd tactics, beginning to persecute in a systematic and brutal fashion some categories of people whose well-known faces and popularity among the crowds would have created a bad image for the rulers. So they started arresting and jailing athletes, artists and journalist, while others 'disappeared', were assaulted or simply were barred from carrying out their sports activities or their jobs. (Similar targeting has more recently begun to be exercised against groups such as teachers, engineers and businessmen).
When athletes and sports officials in Bahrain started witnessing these actions against many of their colleagues, they were obviously getting scared and started to find methods to get the information out to their contacts abroad, in addition to the rather meager coverage in international media. They sent a petition to the IOC, FIFA, IHF, FIBA and various other federations, and they contacted friends abroad.
In this manner I personally got confirmation of the jailing of several players on the national handball team, an international referee, and several officials of the Bahrain Handball Association. I was urged to help spread the news in the hope that this would speed up action.
It should be noted that the Bahraini government has been completely unashamed of publicly stating their intentions. In a YouTube video, the young Prince Nasser who has been placed as President of the Bahrain Olympic Committee can be heard expressing, in a hateful and menacing manner, that all those who speak out against the government will be hunted down and cannot escape. The President of the Football Federation, another prominent member of the royal family, announced that athletes had no rights to free speech; they must stay quiet and remain loyal to their government. In other words, what is going on is not exactly a secret to anyone, and it is clear that athletes are persecuted also in the absence of any accusations of crimes but simply on the basis of voicing their opinions in public.
Accordingly I found it necessary and urgent to inquire with senior officials of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), about the conspicuous absence of public statements or any other form of action on the part of the IOC. The IOC's normally shows a rather obsessive insistence on autonomy for the sports movement and more specifically on the absolute prohibition against government interference. Even much less drastic cases, such as interference in federation elections and operations have quickly caused IOC to resort to suspensions and other punishment.
I noted that, given the ongoing role of the government of Bahrain, where they (just like in many other 'similar' countries, and amazingly tolerated by the IOC) totally manage or even dominate the sports scene, it would be necessary to apply as much pressure as possible, such as making it publicly known around the world that the IOC investigating the situation on an emergency basis.This just might cause the Bahraini government to come to its senses. After all, the situation literally involves life and death; it is not a minor bureaucratic issue that can be handled quietly and with low priority.
However, the scary and mind-boggling answer I have received essentially suggests that IOC must proceed quietly and without jumping to conclusions, while awaiting more facts and evidence!
I fully understand that one must be careful about throwing around accusations or verdicts, but surely there is no legal constraint involved in relying on petitions from large numbers of athletes and unanimous media reports as a basis for stating publicly that an urgent investigation is underway. Instead, the IOC says it has requested clarifications from the Bahraini Olympic Committee, which is headed precisely by the person who has publicly stated the intention to hunt down athletes and officials who try to exercise human rights in the form of free speech. The unmistakable impression is that it is more important not to embarrass the Prince in public than it is to get the persecution, jailing and beating of athletes stopped as soon as possible!