Bahraini refugee athlete details Bahrain’s sportswashing of human rights abuses

When refugee Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi travelled to Thailand for a honeymoon with his wife in November 2018, little did he know he would…

By: Karim Zidan | 4 years ago
Bahraini refugee athlete details Bahrain’s sportswashing of human rights abuses
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

When refugee Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi travelled to Thailand for a honeymoon with his wife in November 2018, little did he know he would become entangled in an extradition case that would eventually become an international scandal.

Al-Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014 before being granted permanent residence in Australia, was arrested upon arrival in Bangkok after Bahrain obtained an Interpol red notice arrest warrant against him. Al-Araibi had been jailed in Bahrain during a crackdown on pro-democracy athletes following the 2011 uprising. He fled his homeland before being sentenced in abstentia to 10 years in jail over an act of vandalism that he denies because he was playing a televised football match at the time.

Despite Interpol policy stating that red notices cannot be issued against refugees on behalf of the countries they fled, al-Araibi spent more than 70 days in Thai prison before Thailand pulled the extradition case against him due to “new information.” There was also mounting pressure from international organizations, activists, and social media users who demanded the athlete’s release. He then boarded a plane back to Melbourne, where he lived with his wife and competed for local football team Pascoe Vale.

Al-Araibi’s release and subsequent return to Melbourne was an important victory for human rights and a reminder of the pivotal role social media can play in activism. Now an Australian citizen, Al-Araibi remains outspoken about his native homeland’s human rights abuses and uses his newfound infamy to draw attention to the plight of other prisoners in Bahrain.

Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images

Most recently, the 26-year-old footballer has set his sights on The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), its longstanding agreement with the Bahraini monarchy, and how the IMMAF World Championships of Amateur MMA, which has been hosted place in Bahrain during the past three years, is being used to distract from the Island kingdom’s ongoing human rights abuses.

MMA Diplomacy

On November 12, 2019 — during the middle of the 2019 edition of the IMMAF World Championships of Amateur MMA — Al-Araibi delivered a letter on behalf of imprisoned Bahraini jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts (MMA) champion Mohammed Mirza, urging the IMMAF to “reconsider” their “future partnership with Bahrain.”

The letter, which was written by Mirza and provided to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), protested the IMMAF’s endorsement of the BRAVE Combat Federation (BRAVE CF), an MMA promotion founded by the King of Bahrain’s son, Sheikh Khaled bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

In 2015, Sheikh Khalid took the decision to begin investing in mixed martial arts. He financed the development of Bahrain’s first fully-functional MMA gym (KHK MMA), and founded Bahrain’s first MMA promotion, Brave Combat Federation (Brave FC), the following year, which has since enjoyed significant growth.

Outside of Bahrain, the promotion hosted events in Brazil, India, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Indonesia, Colombia, Pakistan, South Africa and Mexico. As a result of its international expansion, Brave CF has showcased talented fighters from a variety of nations that rarely get an international platform. It has also served as the primary platform for Arab fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa.

Despite these positive developments, I have previously reported on how the organization also operates as an extension of the government agenda, a tool for diplomacy and improved bilateral relations between Bahrain and other countries, and a distraction against ongoing human rights concerns.

Sheikh Khalid meets with Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov at the Akhmat MMA fight club.

In the eight years that followed the 2011 Arab Spring protests, which saw Bahrain’s Shia-Islam majority population revolt against the centuries old Sunni monarchy, Bahrain’s government has continued to oppress the vast majority of its population in an attempt to maintain power. Tactics such as the dissolution of political parties, passport confiscations, and torture, became common practice. In an attempt to gain legitimacy following their pivot to authoritarianism, Bahrain turned its attention to using hosting sports events as a form of soft power.

To date, Bahrain has used the Formula-1 Grand Prix event, the Olympic Games, cycling, and MMA in its plans to cement legitimacy and enhance their image abroad. Al-Araibi and Mirza’s complaint focuses on the latter.

“By attempting to showcase Bahrain as the Middle East’s sporting capital, the Bahraini authorities are exploiting your support and concealing the truth about their ongoing violations against detained sportspeople,” Mirza said in a letter written in the infamous Jau Central Prison, adding that he would be abstaining from speaking to prison authorities for the duration of the amateur championships (10-16 November) as a “message of peaceful protest.”

A Sportswashing Platform

Over the past three years, the IMMAF has held its flagship tournament, the IMMAF World Championships of Amateur MMA, in Bahrain as part of the BRAVE International Combat Week. The 2019 edition of the tournament featured a total of 452 athletes competing from 51 nations, hosted by the Bahrain Mixed Martial Arts Federation under the Bahrain Olympic Committee. The event was the largest of its kind in the Middle East.

“I would like to thank His Highness Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad al Khalifa, who as Youth and Sports Minister and national Olympic Committee President in Bahrain, has been the driving force behind the development of MMA in the region,” said IMMAF President Kerrith Brown. “We look forward to working again with the Bahrain MMA Federation and BRAVE to deliver another incomparable World Championship event for our athletes. Bahrain has exceeded expectations for two years running, and I urge MMA amateurs to apply for the opportunity to participate in this extraordinary, world-class, sporting experience.”

The event also took place under the patronage of Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Sheikh Khalid’s older brother and president of the Bahrain Olympic Federation. Sheikh Nasser, who gave a speech during the opening ceremony, is a far more controversial figure than his brother, as he was accused of torture among other human rights abuses during the 2011 uprising in Bahrain.

During the 2011 uprising, Sheikh Nasser allegedly used his position as president of various sports federations to threaten athletes who attempted to participate in the movement, including both Mirza and al-Araibi. He also declared on State TV that “whoever calls for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head… whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is, he will be held accountable at this time. Today is the judgment day.”

Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite the controversial figures affiliated to the event, the IMMAF has continued to endorse the BRVAE CF promotion. When asked about their cooperation with the Bahraini government in 2017, an IMMAF spokesperson released a lengthy statement to BloodyElbow defending their decision:

IMMAF is firmly opposed to all forms of discrimination and abuse but, as a sporting organization, it is not within our jurisdiction to dictate the wider laws of any sovereign nation. Within our role, we continually work to ensure that there is no discrimination at our Championships or within our national federations in adherence with the principles of good governance.

To this end, Article 9 of IMMAF’s Member Statutes demands that in the carrying out of their duties IMMAF Member organizations “reject all forms and means of discrimination against individuals, groups of people, organizations or countries based on ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion or politics”.

Bahrain is under no sanctions or embargoes, and many international sports federations work with the country.

While Bahrain is indeed under no sanctions or embargoes, its history of violence and discrimination against its Shia-majority population is well-documented. Human Right Watch has long reported on Bahrain’s deteriorating freedom of expression, torture and mistreatment of detainees, revocations of nationality, and travel bans enacted on dissidents. Despite these well-documented human rights violations, sports entities such as the Formula-1 and the IMMAF continue to work with the kingdom, thus allowing the country’s royal family to use sports to distract from ongoing human rights violations, and present a facade of stability to those watching from abroad.

In his letter, Mirza detailed the arrest, torture and sham trial which saw him sentenced to 15 years by a military court and warned that the Bahraini regime is “exploiting” the support of international sporting bodies like the IMMAF and “concealing the truth about their ongoing violations against detained sportspeople.”

“I am just one of many political detainees whom the Bahraini authorities have kept in prison since 2011,” Mirza said in his letter addressed to Brown. “I am an MMA fighter and coach and have earned podiums at several championships. Instead of being honoured and embraced as a national talent, I was kidnapped by military forces at a checkpoint on 16 March 2011, during the state of emergency.

“I was questioned and psychologically and physically tortured over the course of three months. I was then tried before a military court that fell short of standards of justice and integrity. For 8 years and 7 months I have been denied my freedom. When I complete my sentence, I will have spent 10 years out of the ring because of the authorities’ failure to find a political resolution to the current crisis.”

It should be noted that in the time elapsed since Mirza penned his appeal to Brown, four United Nations experts published a letter to the Government of Bahrain expressing concerns for allegations of torture and denial of adequate medical care for detainees in Jau Prison, which included Mirza.

“Currently, Mr. Moosa has a degenerative disc disease, corrosion in the right knee joint, a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament, broken teeth and damage in the right side of the lower jaw. Mr. Moosa claims that all these injuries were a result of torture. According to his family, he had no health issues before his arrest as he was an athlete who took care of his health.”

Al Araibi, who hails from the same village as Mirza, urged the IMMAF President to speak out about Mirza’s case, citing the role sports bodies such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee played in securing his own freedom after Bahrain’s extradition attempts: “I hope you can do the same for Mohamed.”

“Mohamed is appealing to you, so that you raise his case with the Bahraini authorities. I echo his call for you to distance yourself from the Bahraini government by reconsidering any future partnership which may provide them with the opportunity to rehabilitate their tarnished international image.”

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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