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Government ban Syrian general but message is still mixed

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David Bond | 19:47 UK time, Friday, 22 June 2012

The government had little choice but to ban General Mowaffak Joumaa from attending next month's London Olympics.

As head of the Syrian Olympic Committee and a senior figure in the army, he is said to have close links to President Bashar-Al Assad.

Earlier this year he insisted there was no violence in Syria despite the United Nations claiming 9,000 people have now been killed by security forces in the country.

In a letter to the sports minister, Hugh Robertson, the British Solidarity for Syria group (BSS) described General Joumaa as "an aide, supporter and apologist for a regime committing war crimes and crimes against humanity including torture, sexual violence and extra-judicial executions".

But General Joumaa has denied any involvement in the bloodshed in Syria and has expressed his determination to come to London along with the country's small group of athletes and coaches.

Unlike other members of the Syrian regime, including President Assad himself, he is not subject to a United Nations or European Union travel ban.

So the decision to stop him from coming to London 2012 has been taken by a small government committee in Whitehall made up of senior officials from the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Because, while it is the International Olympic Committee which is ultimately responsible for inviting members of the so-called Olympic family to London for the Games, the British government has the right to refuse entry to any individual it considers to be contrary to the national interest.

Bandsmen of the Irish Guards play during an unveiling ceremony for Olympic Rings in the Terminal Five arrivals hall at Heathrow Airport. Photo: Reuters

Normally such decisions are based on security threats but it is not clear in General Joumaa's case what evidence has been used to justify his ban.

Clearly the idea of any individual with links to the top brass in Syria rubbing shoulders with other world leaders and Olympic officials at the opening ceremony had the potential for serious embarrassment.

But the IOC will now want to see the full reasons for the British government's decision before rubber stamping it.

As a point of principle, the IOC strongly resists any interference in its affairs or in who it chooses to invite or not invite to the Games. After all the Olympics ultimately belong to the IOC - not host cities such as London.

And remember, this doesn't happen very often.

The most famous recent case came before the Sydney Games in 2000 when the Australian government refused entry to senior Uzbekistan boxing official Gafur Rakhimov. He was alleged at the time to be closely connected to the criminal underworld in Russia.

On that occasion the then president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, wrote to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard expressing his "deep concern" at the move.

That is extremely unlikely this time. The IOC is now much more sensitive to political issues involving host countries and, on a matter like Syria, knows it will have to rely on the British government's judgment.

Equally it is aware that every host country has different political views and agendas.

For example, in Beijing in 2008 there may have been a number of officials from countries which the Chinese government considered persona non grata. How palatable would that have been for a western country like Britain or the United States to accept?

All of this is hardly new territory for the Olympics. The Soviet Union was invited to the last Games in London in 1948 but didn't show up, we had the Cold War boycotts of 1980 and 1984 over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Chinese didn't compete for 32 years.

The Olympics have been used time and again to make political points.

But having decided to make a point on Syria, it is difficult to understand why ministers from the Home Office and Foreign Office seemed so reluctant today to send a message to President Assad today.

Officials actually made the decision last week. But after breaking the story this morning, BBC requests for interviews or even confirmation of the news were met with silence.

As with the ministerial boycott of Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine - which as a political statement was weakened by the way the Foreign Office couched it in logistical terms connected to ministers' diaries - there seems to be a mixed message coming from the government on sport and politics.

Whatever you think of that - and it seems to me the two are unavoidable in an age when sport is so international and so important financially - if it wants to use sport to make political points then the government needs to have the confidence of its convictions.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    what about banning chinese officlas given that country's appalling human rights record and its occupation of tibet?

  • Comment number 2.

    Because my friend you know as well as I that China are a huge trading partner and at the moment Syria are not.
    They have nothing to lose and public support to gain, that's how cynical politicians are.

    Not until the UK and US get their own man in charge (see Afghanistan) will Syria enter the little Imperialist club.

    Personally I think the Olympics should be free from politics as it is politics and polititians who like to divide us and the Olympics should unite us.

  • Comment number 3.

    He's a General in the Syrian Army. The Government are right to ban him. His link to the Olympics is secondary in this matter.

  • Comment number 4.

    Although the IOC is unlikely to request that this ban be upturned, the fact that they can question a government is preposterous. It suggests they are somehow endowed with greater powers than a sovereign nation!

  • Comment number 5.

    Great news.

    Has to be said though - Leigh Richards is right.

    There have been far, far more people killed and tortured by the Chinese in Tibet in recent years than by Assad's forces in Syria.

    But China are seen to be too big to mess with, and in fact were awarded the Games themselves last time round.

    If we truly had the courage of our convictions, we would condemn them unequivocally, in the strongest terms, and deny any Chinese government officials entry to our country.

  • Comment number 6.

    I assume those calling for the UK to ban Chinese Olympic officials don't buy goods made in China. I don't, but it does make life rather difficult!

  • Comment number 7.

    This is crazy, Seams like our World was meant for One Set/group of people, that is us The WEST. We use the DEMOCRACY promote our economic and political policies. This action taken by British Government is Completely Polotical and Hyprocritical. As you are reading this comment. There ars about 8 Palestanian Athleths in Isreal prison. They've been held in prison without charges over a YEAR ago. These men and women have gone on Food Strike, HumanRights Watchdogs raises concern, there is a Call for the British Government to Stop Israel Olympic team from participating in this summer Olympic. The British government refused to do so.
    But, hey,they Baned the Syrians, why, they are not like us. Cia

  • Comment number 8.

    @slumdog.

    You need to read the article a little more closely. They haven't banned the Syrian Olympic team. They have banned a Syrian Olympic official. He happens to be a General in the Syrian army with close links to the atrocities being performed there.

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't understand why a military figure has an important role in the Olympic team. Anyway, I don't think this will affect the sirians, unless he was couching someone.

 

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