Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has asked Bahrain for information about an Iraqi soccer player detained three months ago by security forces during anti-government protests on the Gulf island, according to Kurdistan News Agency AkNews.
Zulfiqar Naji, a 16-year old, who trains with Bahraini al-Mouharrak football club’s junior team, was arrested in April at his home, according to his father and soccer coach Abdelamir Naji.
Mr. Naji , who also serves on the board of Iraqi club Al Zawra, has denied that his son participated in the protests.
“He is far removed from politics,” Mr. Naji said. He said his son was not involved in politics and only interested in music and football.
“I have asked the club to intervene but they have not done much. I do not understand what is happening because I thought I had a good relationship with Bahrain,” Mr. Naji said
Mr. Naji Sr. played with Iraq’s Al-Zawra club from 1978 to 1990 before coaching various Bahraini teams, including Al-Mouharrak, Al-Itifaq, Al-Ittihad and Al-Badiyah.
AkNews quoted Iraqi Youth and Sports Minister Jas Mohammed Jaafar as saying that Mr. Zebari was demanding an explanation from Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Bin Ahmed for Mr. Naji Jr.’s continued detention.
Iraqi relations have deteriorated sharply with the six oil-rich monarchies of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council in the wake of the Sunni Muslim-led Bahraini government’s crackdown on the predominantly Shiite Muslim protesters.
Bahrain backed by the GCC has asserted that the demonstrations were instigated by Shiite Iran in a bid to destabilize the island and sow sectarian discord.
Earlier this week Bahraini soccer officials assured world soccer body FIFA that none of its national soccer players had been disciplined or sanctioned for alleged participation in the demonstrations.
Bahrain gave the assurances in response to a request by FIFA for full details of the reported detention in early April of Bahraini soccer players in preparation of an investigation into whether the government has interfered politically in the sport.
Three national soccer team players were reportedly detained in April and some 150 others athletes, coaches and referees suspended for their alleged support of the protests. The Times newspaper quoted government officials as saying this week that the three soccer players had been charged with criminal offences but had been released on bail.
The arrests and suspensions are believed to have been ordered by a government committee headed by the Bahraini king’s son, Sheik Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa.
“There seems to be a view that footballers or doctors are above the law. If there is a case against them, it does not matter who they are or what their profession is,” Bahrain Olympic Committee secretary general Sheik Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalifa said referring to the fact that a large number of medics were also arrested in the wake of the protests.
The Times reported further that the detained soccer players had been tortured while in custody. Quoting friends and family of the players, The Times said the players had been beaten and subjected to long interrogations and ritual humiliation. The victims, the paper said, included national team players A’ala Hubail, a striker, his brother Mohammed and goalkeeper Ali Saeed.
The newspaper described the three players as sitting in a community center in the Shia village of Sitra, near the Bahraini capital of Manama where they were reluctant to speak about their treatment and would say only that they did not know whether they would be allowed to play soccer again.
The Times said that the Hubail brothers had had their heads shaved and that Mohammed had bruises on his feet.
Friends and relatives said the men had been threatened with further abuse if they spoke out, but gave details of what they knew of the men’s alleged treatment in jail.
“The first two weeks after they were arrested were the worst. They were beaten all the time. They still have marks on their bodies,” The Times quoted one close relative, who did not want to be named, as saying.
The Times report challenges FIFA’s apparent acceptance of Bahrain’s assertion that no soccer players were detained.
Bahrain could be suspended if FIFA were to conclude that the government had intervened for political reasons in the Gulf island’s soccer. It could also jeopardize Bahrain’s participation in the next round of Asian Olympic qualifiers which begins in September.
A FIFA investigation could also affect the chances of Bahrain Football Association (BFA) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, to succeed disgraced Qatari national Mohamed Bin Hammam as head of the powerful Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Sheikh Salman is widely viewed as the frontrunner for the job.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)