Outcry Over Iraqi Teen Footballer in Bahraini Jail
Concerns are growing for a promising Iraqi teenage footballer detained for more than three months in Bahrain after being accused of participating in the island state’s protest movement.
Zulfiqar Naji, 16, who lives in Manama with his family, was arrested in an April 15 early morning raid by police officers on his home. “They broke into the house while we were sleeping and went straight upstairs to his room,” his sister Hanadi Naji told IWPR. “They beat him.. and then took him away to a secret location.”
She said that there had been as many as 20 heavily armed police officers present.
Police allege Zulfiqar, who plays football at the prestigious Al-Muharraq sports club, a leading Bahraini football team, participated in the violent protests which began in February 2011 when thousands of Shia took to the streets calling for reforms.
A crackdown ensued with troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joining in to prop up the Bahraini government’s moves against the protesters.
Zulfiqar’s father Abdulameer Naji, who since 1998 has worked as a football coach and lecturer at Manama’s college of physical education, said he believed the arrest was the result of “a misunderstanding”.
“My son is totally far from religious or political issues,” said the former player with the popular Al-Zawraa football club in Iraq, who was back in Iraq running for board elections at the club when his son was arrested. “He is keen on playing football, music and singing. I hope the Bahraini authorities would release him soon.”
His father added that he hoped his own relatively high profile status as a former footballer and now coach could help his son’s case. “I have good relations with the Bahraini people,” he added.
No formal charges have yet been brought against Zulfiqar, who has had three court sessions cancelled since his arrest.
“The charge against him is still unclear as the news [they are telling us is] conflicting; we were hoping to hear what the actual charge is,” his mother Umm Karrar Naji said.
The family says they have seen Zulfiqar only once, two months after his arrest, through a glass window in a maximum security prison. When they met him, he complained that he had been tortured and beaten during his first four days in custody, although he also said that conditions in prison had since improved and he was able to meet other prisoners and exercise.
His family believes that the police were given his name by detainees arrested during the protests and forced to sign confessions incriminating their associates.
They contacted the Iraqi embassy immediately after the arrest for support and legal help. However, embassy staff said the family needed to pay for any legal help it provided.
“I have deep faith in my client’s innocence and I don’t believe the government has any evidence against my client,” said Ahmad al-Areedh, a high-profile human rights lawyer who has taken on the boy’s case for free, and who is also representing other detained protesters.
The lawyers said that the fact that Zulfiqar’s case had been moved from a military to a civil court was a positive sign and his immediate release was expected.
The Bahraini authorities could not be reached by IWPR at the time of writing this report.
Some Iraqis see his arrest and subsequent detention as a clear message to non-Bahraini Shia not to meddle in the country’s affairs.
Bassil Abdul-Mahdi, an Iraqi sports commentator and a former sports minister, said, “His detention shows the false freedom Bahraini sheikhs pretend to have. It reflects a clear fanaticism as I don’t think a 16-year-old Iraqi teenager can pose a threat to Bahrain. I call on the foreign ministry of Iraq and the Olympic committee to take serious steps to release him, not just talk about it.”
“We have been incensed by the Bahraini government measures against the young football player,” Najih Hmoud, president of Iraq’s football association, said. “The foreign affairs [ministry] as well as all Iraqi sport institutions are trying to secure his immediate release.”
Hmoud said that the Federation of International Football Associations, FIFA, was supporting Iraq’s efforts in urging Bahrain to release the player and had also written to the boy’s father offering to help broker his release on behalf of the family.
"I want to thank all Iraqi people for their support and magnanimity,” the boy’s sister, Hanadi, said. “We need more of your support to get Zulfiqar back. I also call on the good people of Bahrain to help him. My brother is a quiet, good-hearted guy, so please end this tragedy.”
Farah Ali is an IWPR-trained reporter.