A Human Rights Watch activist said Wednesday that Bahrain barred him from entering the tiny island nation for the annual FIFA congress as the kingdom continues a wide-scale crackdown on dissent. Omar Shakir, the organization’s Israel-Palestine director, said he hoped to talk to FIFA officials and others about his concerns over Israeli soccer teams playing in West Bank settlements. He arrived in Bahrain on Tuesday afternoon, planning to get a visa on arrival with his U.S. passport as others attending the world football federation’s congress had before.
Instead, he said authorities held him inside Manama’s international airport and questioned him for two hours as men wearing FIFA shirts, apparently from the sports ministry, stood silently watching. They ultimately said he couldn’t enter the country as he wasn’t on an official FIFA list, with one angry Bahraini official saying: If you don’t go buy your ticket now, we’ll do it by force.”
Shakir flew out of Bahrain on Wednesday morning. Bahrain’s government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. FIFA moved the congress to Bahrain from Kuala Lumpur after Malaysia withdrew from hosting, citing problems allowing entry to some delegates, including officials from Israel.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and an under-construction British naval base, has recently ramped up a crackdown on dissent that began after it crushed an Arab Spring-inspired uprising in 2011.
Activists have been imprisoned or exiled, and the kingdom recently approved military tribunals for civilians. On Tuesday, Amnesty International said Bahrain referred its first civilian to a military court.
Independent news gathering on the island also has grown more difficult, with the government refusing to accredit two Associated Press journalists and others.