As countries across the globe continue to struggle with the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus — known as COVID-19 — Bahrain had taken the decision to pardon hundreds of prisoners in an attempt to contain the pandemic. Among those released was jiu-jitsu champion Mohammed Mirza.
On March 17, the Bahraini Interior Ministry issued a decree granting pardon to approximately 900 prisoners for “humanitarian reasons, in the backdrop of current circumstances,”. A further 585 inmates were given non-custodial sentences in rehabilitation and training programs. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that among them, around 300 political prisoners were released.
While some commended the royal pardon as humanitarian, London-based rights group Amnesty International observed it as a thinly veiled effort to contain the pandemic.
“1,500 prisoners released for supposedly ‘humanitarian reasons.’ Real reason: #COVID19. Gov’t itself has admitted ‘overcrowding,’ ‘broken toilets,’ ‘insect infestation,’ generally ‘bad hygiene,’ conditions in prisons.”
Despite hundreds of prisoners being pardoned, many of Bahrain’s high profile human rights activists remain behind bars. However, one of the few that were released was jiu-jitsu champion Mohammed Mirza, who served nine years in prison after being arrested during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
From Champion to Political Prisoner
Mirza was arrested on March 16, 2011 — one day after the Bahraini government declared a state of emergency in response to the uprising. He was detained at a checkpoint on suspicion of “kidnapping a police officer” and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Human rights activists believe he was forced to sign a confession after being subjected to various forms of torture at the hands of the Bahraini authorities.
Mirza is not the only athlete who was detained during the uprising. Bahrain has arrested scores of football, handball, and volleyball players since the 2011 uprising. One report from 2014 suggested that approximately 50 athletes were being detained, while another 150 were fired from their positions. Two players from Bahrain’s national team were arrested, publicly humiliated and decried as traitors on television, and were allegedly tortured before being allowed to resume playing for local clubs again, though not for the national team.
Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, the head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee and Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, even backed the regime’s actions by stating publicly on a television broadcast that “anyone who called 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. Today is judgment day … Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape.”
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 any form of dissent. 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 sports events as a form of soft power.
Bahrain’s monarchy has long used sports as a tool to distract from human rights abuses and to distort the reality of the regime’s brutality. Examples of this include the annual Formula-1 event, offering Bahraini passports to foreign athletes to improve Olympic record, and hosting MMA events funded by the Bahraini king’s son, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
In 2018, Mirza, who medaled for Bahrain at the 2008 Asian Open Championships in Thailand, launched a hunger strike to protest the treatment of Mushaima, a Bahraini opposition leader serving a life sentence for his role in Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests and uprising. Mirza also protested his own poor treatment at Bahrain’s Jaw prison, which included a lack of access to proper health care and restrictions on family visitations such as glass barriers. He chose to begin his hunger strike after filing five separate complaints with the prison.
Then in 2019, Mirza penned a letter to the The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) urging the organization to “reconsider” their partnership with Bahrain. He also detailed his 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.”
Mirza was eventually pardoned with approximately one year remaining on his sentence. And while his release is significant, it should also be noted that the prominent political leader and human rights defenders were excluded from the pardon. While the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) documented the release of at least 300 political prisoners, prominent figures such as BCHR founder Nabeel Rajab, Hassan Mushaima, and Dr Abduljalil Al Singace will remain behind bars despite having pre-existing medical conditions which put them at greater risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
““In this time of crisis, the government should put aside petty quarrels and end this painful chapter in our history by releasing political detainees,” Husain Abdulla, Executive Director at Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain said.