In our recent reports from the Asian Men’s Championship, we noted that Bahrain participated as if things are back to normal in the Bahrain Handball Association (BHA) and in the lives of their referees and officials. But this is most emphatically NOT the case. In a prominent report just a few days ago, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) dedicated a long, detailed exposition to the fate of the handball referees of Bahrain. As the BCHR’s headline indicated, “the local and international handball referees are victims of detention, torture and dismissal”.
This is the result of a governmental campaign, aided by the BHA, who gladly collaborated with draconian measures of the government and provided names, photos and other information about the referees and officials who were accused of participating in protests. The government tries to convince the world that most of the detained and dismissed persons are now leading their normal lives again and that the charges against them have been dropped. But the reality is that many of them are still in prison, and others are kept away from their earlier involvement in sports and their old jobs.
The BCHR internet posting reports about the individuals, essentially referees and their instructors and supervisors, who continue to suffer in the hands of the government and ‘their own’ Association. The list, with names and other details, confirms that a large proportion of the international, continental and top national level referees are affected. Moreover, what is not mentioned in the article is that the BHA has tried to force the remaining referees to pick up the slack and also combine into newly formed couples to keep the national league going and to give the impression that everything is running in the usual manner.
There is also a suspicion that it is a quite intentional and cynical decision to target the referees in this way. The top players and coaches are so well-known that their absence would be noticed, and the quality of the national team and the league would suffer. But the referees tend to be more anonymous, so the calculation appears to be that they can be punished more harshly without a strong public attention to their situation. Moreover, they do not have clubs and supporters who might stand ready to agitate on their behalf.
All this happens at a time when many observers outside Bahrain are misled to think that most of the problems that started a year ago are now over. This is especially the case after the government in Bahrain last November took the unusual step of accepting an investigation undertaken by a prestigious, international ‘Independent Commission of Inquiry’. Moreover, the findings of the Commission were published and the King made statements to the effect that there would be a serious follow-through on the recommendations through a ‘national commission’.
To some limited extent, positive action has been taken, but mostly in a forward-looking sense. In other words, there has been legislative action intended to ensure that those authorities who abused their position would no longer be in position to do so in the future. But this does not mean that it is tolerable to see that the situation of those who were already subjected to excessive or unjustified punishment are allowed to continue to suffer. While it is true that many prisons sentences have been cut short and that charges have been dropped in a number of cases, the indications of a continuation of capricious and despotic treatment are too numerous to ignore.
It is also sad to see international observers commenting on the situation in Bahrain out of ignorance or political convenience. Government statements are accepted at face value, Bahrain is given lower priority due to acute, serious events elsewhere, and in some countries there are special reasons for maintaining a positive façade in the relations with Bahrain. For instance, during a visit Bahrain, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner, last week commented overwhelming in positive terms, focusing on action taken and giving relatively short shrift to the many things that still need to be done. The comments were offered in the context of an emphasis on “long-standing alliance”, “important partner” and on “both countries benefitting from stability and prosperity”.
February 14 is the anniversary of the start of the unrest a year ago. Let us hope that it will be marked by explicit steps in action in line with the recommendations of the Independent Commission of Inquiry, with respect to having charges dropped against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression and to having dismissed professionals and official reinstated. Finally, it continues to be a matter of serious concern that there are no signs of a willingness on the part of the International Olympic Committee to intervene adequately on behalf of suffering athletes and sports officials in Bahrain.