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International outcry over Bahraini Prince’s potential Olympic attendance

by guest blogger Chloe Kems.  Follow Chloe on Twitter: @kems4BH

International human rights groups, Bahraini activists, and – as of Thursday – members of the British parliament are urging Britain to ban the royal head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee from attending the London 2012 games.  Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of Bahrain’s king, is set to attend the London Olympics this August, despite his role in the detention and alleged torture of athletes during the 2011 crackdown in Bahrain.

When protests began in mid-February 2011, athletes participated in the democracy protests and Pearl Square demonstrations along with 500,000 Bahrainis from the country’s majority Shi’ite population. When athlete support for Bahrain’s democracy uprising became public, Nasser, who serves as the Head of Bahrain’s National Futbol Association in addition to the country’s Olympic Committee, was “put in charge of effort to detain and punish athletes” who had been spotted participating or supporting the Pearl Square protests.

150 athletes were either detained or suspended after the regime alleged they participated in protests.  Prince Nasser made several controversial statements about the protesters, saying he hoped “may a wall fall down their heads,” and that they would have “nowhere to hide.”  Of the athletes, he stated that he believed the convicted should be imprisoned for life. Relatives of some of the detained athletes allege that they were tortured by Prince Nasser.

However, in late June, Fahad A al-Binali from the Bahraini President’s office issued a statement to The Guardian, in reaction to their coverage of the alleged torture and Olympic debate: “We vociferously reject the very serious allegations your newspaper has made against HH Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa … we categorically deny any involvement of HH Sheikh Nasser in any of these grave unfounded accusations of torture.”

Nasser is not subject to an EU or UN travel ban, the likes of which are currently levied against leaders in Syria, Zimbabwe, and other regimes with histories of human rights violations. A committee of representatives from Britain’s Home Office, Foreign Office, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will decide whether or not Nasser will be granted a visa to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

In May, the BBC’s sports blog reported that “Foreign Secretary William Hague says the government won’t hesitate to use its powers to extend London 2012 travel bans to individuals and officials with connections to undesirable regimes.” Secretary Hague has stated that Sheikh Nasser is among those who will be closely assessed for links to human rights violations that would render him undeserving of an Olympic invitation.

A powerful voice joined the activist coalition to prevent Nasser’s Olympic attendance on Thursday, when George Galloway, a notoriously outspoken member of the British parliament, publicly warned “so called Prince Nasser” of a citizen’s arrest should he travel to London. Galloway’s statement, which currently has over 45,000 views on YouTube, warns Nasser: “don’t come to London, because you won’t enjoy it … you torture, you supporter of murder, you thief, you usurper, you war criminal, you dirty scoundrel, you are not welcome in London. … We will hunt you, wherever you are.”

The British MP’s fierce statements against Nasser coalesce with the release of a statement from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) regarding the human rights climate in Bahrain. Twenty eight countries signed the push for reform implementation as per the BICI and improved cooperation with the UNHRC.

Although neither the US nor the UK signed the UNHRC statement, the outcry over Nasser’s potential Olympic attendance is gaining international traction. Following the protests that surrounded the F1 race in May, the London Olympics builds upon a growing phenomenon in Bahrain: sports politics are bringing global attention to human rights violations in the small Gulf nation.