How Bahrain uses sport to whitewash a legacy of torture and human rights abuses

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 A Bahrain Merida team truck, Tour de France. Photograph: KT/Corbis/ Getty Images

 

17 July 2017 | DAvid Conn | The Guardian

“The cyclist Sonny Colbrelli secured prominent exposure for the name of his Bahrain Merida team early in the Tour de France, heading the group sprint at the end of the second stage in Liège before finishing a creditable sixth.

The team’s leader, Ion Izagirre, crashed out on the first day, but Bahrain Merida has already established itself on the world tour, after the star signing Vincenzo Nibali competed through three spectacular weeks in May to claim a third-place finish in the Giro d’Italia.

The cycling team, launched in January with an estimated £13.7m budget by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, a son of the ruling King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is the latest venture which will help to promote the autocratically ruled, troubled country through an association with globally televised sporting events.

The Formula One grand prix is still a fixture in Bahrain, lending the island its super-fuelled glitz every year. Sheikh Nasser launched the Bahrain Endurance 13 triathlon team in 2015, with a stated aim of promoting sport’s values, and his belief that “through triathlon, people can enjoy a better life”. The Bahrain shirt is now worn by the English Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee, among other international triathletes.

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. On 11 May Fifa welcomed him on to the stage at its congress held in the Bahrain capital Manama, where Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, thanked him for hosting the congress in “your beautiful country”.

In his speech, Sheikh Nasser said of hosting the congress: “This adds another dimension to our national vision to be an island that hosts, supports, organises, develops and participates in the success of the global sports movement … Let’s widen participation and turn football into a true catalyst for diversity, tolerance and excellence.”

The Bahrain Grand Prix has been a fixture of the F1 calendar since 2012, despite being moved in 2011
The Bahrain Grand Prix has been a fixture of the F1 calendar since 2012, despite being moved in 2011. Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

 

The following day, 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.

On a small island populated by approximately 600,000 citizens, the Shia Muslim population have long complained that they are discriminated against in employment and housing by the Khalifa regime, which adheres to the Sunni branch of Islam. The government fears the political and religious influence of Iran on the Shia community, and has responded to campaigns for greater democracy and equality with increasingly thuggish persecution.

Just a few miles up the Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman highway from the five-star hotels and security-ringed convention centre where the rituals of the Fifa congress were accommodated, the sinister side of Bahrain was in open view. There, 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.

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, accusing him of money‑laundering and being in a hostile alliance with Iran. Local supporters crowded around his house in Diraz to prevent the authorities arresting him, until a Bahraini court found him guilty and security forces advanced into the town.

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