Sitra, Bahrain. When antigovernment protests broke out in Bahrain, Alaa and Mohammed Hubail stayed in their family compound and refused to take part. They feared their reputations as top footballers would make them easy targets for police.
But Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa soon came out in support of peaceful protests. It was the green light the Hubail brothers were looking for, and they joined a march of several hundred athletes to Pearl Square, the epicenter of Shiite-led protests against the Gulf nation’s Sunni rulers.
It was a tragic miscalculation. Two weeks after the February march, 31-year-old Alaa was interrogated on state television and called a traitor. He and his 29-year-old brother were arrested a day later along with goalkeeper Ali Saeed Abdullah as they trained at their Al Alhi club. They were among six players from the national team who were jailed, where they say they were tortured for taking part in the protests.
Mohammed was tried and sentenced to two years in jail. He is out of jail while he appeals the sentence. Alaa’s case is pending. They have gone from celebrities to pariahs among pro-government factions, barred from playing on the national team and blacklisted from the local league for what they contend was simply following the prince’s advice.
“I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can,” Alaa said at his home in the Shiite-dominated village of Sitra in the first interviews the brothers have given to foreign media.
“But I won’t forget the experience I went through for all my life. What happened to me was a cost of fame. Participating in the athletes’ rally was not a crime.”
The backlash against the brothers was part of a government crackdown in a bid to snuff out opposition to the regime. Besides the arrest of hundreds of citizens, students were expelled from universities, government employees were fired and doctors and nurses put on trial for treating injured protesters.
Protesters were denigrated and interrogated on state television and accused of anti-state conspiracies in trials before a secretive security court. Even the slightest infractions were dealt with harshly, including a 20-year-old woman who was sentenced to a year in prison for reading a poem critical of Bahrain’s king.
Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain’s Shiite majority took to the streets on Feb. 14 to demand the country’s Sunni dynasty loosen its control on top government and security posts. After days of peaceful protests, the regime cracked down on demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of more than 30 people and the detention of thousands.
“The Kingdom of Bahrain does not advocate the abuse of human rights,” Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said in a statement. “The allegations of mistreatment or torture of medical personnel and others currently in the courts for alleged crimes in the Kingdom of Bahrain are of grave concern to us.”
Of all the demonstrators, athletes would have seemed the least likely to be targeted. Many had close ties to members of the royal family and were involved in the regime’s campaign to raise its global profile through sports.
Having athletes take to the streets, though, appears to have touched a nerve. Ministers launched attacks in state media, calling the sportsmen disloyal and ungrateful after many had been rewarded with cushy jobs, houses or luxury cars.
Then, the arrests began. More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees were jailed after a special committee, chaired by Bahrain Football Association chairman Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, identified them from photos of the protests. Six football clubs, all from Shiite villages, were fined $20,000 each and remain suspended.
Most of the athletes have since been released, but those interviewed remained stunned by the government’s actions — especially the jail terms, the alleged beatings and the charges of being agents of Iran or Hezbollah.
Many spoke reluctantly, saying they feared their comments could get them longer jail sentences. But most felt the time had come to speak out.
“I only went to the roundabout for 30 minutes. I never said bad things about the government, especially the king,” said Tariq al-Farsani, a former bodybuilder who was arrested on April 15 and spent about two months in jail. “The sports people only went there because they want freedom for the people. Everybody went there. It wasn’t a big thing.”
Despite the regime’s call for unity in the divided nation, athletes continue to suffer.
All of those interviewed told the same story — they are now jobless, running out of money and living in legal limbo. Most are still barred from government jobs, all are banned from playing for the national team and are still waiting for their trials to resume.
“When I saw all this happen to me, I feel like I’m nothing. They don’t care about anyone who served the country, who made history for this country,” said Saleh Hasan, a nine-time table tennis champion who was banned as a national coach and lost his job at the Ministry of Education.
“Seventy days in jail. This is their appreciation to me. I’m thinking a lot of ending my sportsman career. … The things they do to me has given me another chance to think. All my history was a big mistake for this country if they treat us like this.”
Several athletes are still behind bars, including brothers Mohammed and Ali Mirza, who played for the national handball team that went to the 2011 World Cup, and 16-year-old footballer Zulfiqar Naji.
“This has been really hard,” said Naji’s mother Montaha Kassim, who brought her family to Bahrain eight years ago and plans to return to Iraq once her son is released. “When we were in Iraq with Saddam, nothing like this happened to us. I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
Like most Bahrain athletes, the Hubail brothers say they never dabbled in politics. Football was all that mattered to them.
The brothers’ arrival on the national team in 1998 came at an opportune time. Bahrain had dropped to 139th in the FIFA world rankings, but a young team led by Alaa and several other Shiite stars sparked a run to the 2004 Asian Cup semifinals and lifted the national team as high as 44th in the world.
The team twice was one match from qualifying for World Cups, losing playoff games to Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 and New Zealand in 2010 in what is still considered a remarkable achievement for a country of 525,000. Along the way, the boys received celebrity treatment in Bahrain. Alaa, a stern-looking father of one, had his portrait plastered all over Manama as part of a Pepsi advertising campaign.
“I’m very proud my sons were part of making history for the country,” said the brothers’ father, Ahmed Hubail. “It’s good. We try hard to just get our country up and to be famous in the world. We didn’t expect they would be put in prison for doing nothing. They did nothing. They just participated in the march.”
Pressure from FIFA helped gain the Hubail brothers’ release in late June, but their ordeal didn’t end there. The brothers were put on trial for protesting. They were left off the list of players for the team’s 2014 World Cup qualifiers, although coach Peter Taylor said he wouldn’t rule out adding them at some point.
The Hubail brothers aren’t taking part in the protests any more and spend most of their days at the family compound. Alaa has recently signed a deal to play for an Omani club, but Mohammed is still searching for a team. He refused to return to former club Al Alhi after it insisted he sign a statement admitting to his crimes.
Mohammed still can’t get over his treatment in jail — claiming he was blindfolded, handcuffed and kicked and beaten with hoses relentlessly by the police — and is angry that neither the executives from Al Alhi nor any of his fellow players stood up for him.
He has begun to question whether he will ever play football again. Even if the charges are dropped and the national team offers him a spot, he isn’t sure he wants to wear Bahrain’s jersey.
“Sure, I want to play. But first we need a solution to all of this,” he said. “I need to know what is going to happen to me. For our community, the nation, how long are we going to be like this?”