SITRA, Bahrain | When anti-government protests broke out in Bahrain, Alaa and Mohammed Hubail hunkered down in their family compound and refused to take part. They feared their reputations as top soccer players would make them easy targets for police.
But Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa soon came out in support of peaceful protests. It was the green light the Hubail brothers were looking for and they joined a march of several hundred athletes to Pearl Square, the epicenter of Shiite-led protests against the Gulf nation's Sunni rulers.
It was a tragic miscalculation.
Two weeks after the February march, the 31-year-old Alaa Hubail was interrogated on state-run television and called a traitor. He and his 29-year-old brother were arrested a day later along with national team goalkeeper Ali Saeed Abdullah as they trained at their Al Alhi soccer club. They were among six players from the country's national team who were hauled into jail, where they say they were tortured for taking part in the protests.
Mohammed Hubail was tried and sentenced to two years in jail. He is out of jail while he appeals the sentence. Alaa's case is pending. They have gone from celebrities to pariahs among Bahrain's pro-government factions — barred from playing on the national team and blacklisted from the local league for what they contend was simply following the advice of the crown prince.
"I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can," Alaa Hubail, nicknamed the Golden Boy after the prolific striker was the top scorer in the 2004 Asian Cup, told The Associated Press at his home in the Shiite-dominated village of Sitra in the first interviews the brothers have given to foreign media.
"But I won't forget the experience which I went through for all my life" he said. "What happened to me was a cost of fame. Participating in the athletes' rally was not a crime."
The backlash against the Hubail brothers was part of a sweeping, government crackdown in a bid to snuff out opposition to the regime. Besides the arrest of hundreds of citizens, students were expelled from universities, government employees were fired, and doctors and nurses put on trial for treating injured protesters.
Protesters were denigrated and interrogated on state television and then accused of anti-state conspiracies in trials before a secretive, security court. Even some of the slightest infractions were dealt with harshly, including a 20-year-old woman who was sentenced to a year in prison for reading a poem critical of Bahrain's king.
Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain's Shiite majority took to the streets Feb. 14 to demand that the country's more than 200-year-old Sunni dynasty loosen its control on top government and security posts. After days of mostly peaceful protests, the regime cracked down on the protesters, resulting in the death of more than 30 people and the detention of thousands.
Of all the demonstrators, athletes would have seemed to be the least likely to be targeted. Many had close ties to members of the royal family and were involved in the regime's campaign to raise its global profile through sports.
It was a strategy that resulted in the kingdom securing the region's first Formula One race — the Bahrain Grand Prix — and being added this year to the European Tour schedule with the Volvo Golf Champions. The protests, however, forced the cancellation of this year's Bahrain GP and the next Volvo golf tournament.
Having athletes take to the streets, though, appears to have touched a nerve among several ministers. They launched attacks in state media calling the sportsmen disloyal and ungrateful after many had been rewarded with cushy jobs, houses or luxury cars.
Then, the arrests began.
More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees from soccer to pingpong were jailed after a special committee, chaired by Bahrain Football Association chairman Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, identified them from photos of the protests. A half-dozen soccer clubs, all from Shiite villages, were fined $20,000 each and remain suspended.
Most athletes have since been released, but those interviewed by the AP remained stunned by the government's actions — especially the jail terms, the alleged beatings and the charges of being agents of Iran or Hezbollah.
Many had for months refused to speak to the international media and only spoke to the AP reluctantly, admitting they feared their comments could get them longer jail sentences. But most felt the time had come to speak out after all they had endured.
"I only went to the roundabout for 30 minutes. I never said bad things about the government, especially the king," said Tariq al-Farsani, a well-known former bodybuilder who was arrested April 15 and spent about two months in jail. "The sports people only went there because they want freedom for the people. Everybody went there. It wasn't a big thing."
And despite the regime's call for unity in the divided nation, athletes continue to suffer.
All of those interviewed told the same story — they are now jobless, running out of money and living in a legal limbo. Most have not been allowed to return to government jobs, all are banned from playing for the national team and are still awaiting a date for their trials to resume.
"When I saw all this happen to me, I feel like I'm nothing. They don't care about anyone who served the country, who made history for this country," said Saleh Hasan, a nine-time Bahrain pingpong champion who was banned as a national coach and lost his job at the Ministry of Education.
"Seventy days in jail. This is their appreciation to me," he said. "I'm thinking a lot of ending my sportsman career. ... The things they do to me has given me another chance to think. All my history was a big mistake for this country if they will treat us like this."
Several athletes are still behind bars, including brothers Mohammed and Ali Mirza, who played for the country's handball team that went to the 2011 World Cup in January, and 16-year-old Iraqi soccer player Zulfiqar Naji, who played for Al Muharraq's junior team.
"This has been really hard," said Naji's mother Montaha Kassim, who brought her family to Bahrain eight years ago and plans to return to Iraq once her son is released. "When we were in Iraq with Saddam, nothing like this happened to us. I don't want to stay here anymore."
In a statement about the athletes, Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority said no one was jailed because of their profession, but that it "was their understanding that people have been detained for various reasons to do with the maintenance of public order or threats to national security."
It said Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry is investigating the allegations, including claims of torture, and a report is due at the end of October. As for whether athletes can return to their teams, it said this was a matter for individual clubs and team managers to sort out, not the government.
"The idea that there is some kind of conspiracy against sports people is ludicrous," the authority said. "Bahrain is proud of its patriotic sports men and women and looks forward to seeing their talents on display at the forthcoming Gulf Cooperation Council Games in Bahrain (in October)."
Like most Bahrain athletes, the Hubail brothers say they never dabbled in politics. Soccer, by far the most popular sport on the island, was all that mattered to them.
"Football is our life; the third thing after water, after food," said father Ahmed Hubail, laughing as he talked in the sparsely decorated family room of their modest, two-story villa. "Me, too. I'm an old man and I play football."
The brothers' arrival on the national team in 1998 came at an opportune time.
Bahrain had dropped to 139th in the FIFA world rankings and was on the verge of becoming a laughing stock in the Gulf. But a young team led by Alaa Hubail and several other Shiite stars sparked a run to the 2004 Asian Cup semifinal and lifted the team as high as 44th in the rankings.
The team twice was one match from qualifying for World Cups — losing playoff games to Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 and New Zealand in 2010 in what is still considered a remarkable achievement for a country of 525,000. Along the way, the boys were given the celebrity treatment in Bahrain. Alaa, a stern-looking father of one, had his portrait plastered all over Manama as part of a Pepsi advertising campaign.
"I'm very proud my sons were part of making history for the country," Ahmed Hubail said. "It's good. We try hard to just get our country up and to be famous in the world. We didn't expect they would be put in prison for doing nothing. They did nothing. They just participated in the march."
Pressure from FIFA helped gain the Hubail brothers' release in late June, but their ordeal didn't end there. The brothers were put on trial for protesting. They were left off the list of players for the team's 2014 World Cup qualifiers, although coach Peter Taylor told the AP he wouldn't rule out adding them at some point.
The uncertainty over their fate has left the family angry and bitter — much like many Shiites in their neighborhood of narrow lanes and mostly drab, one-story homes.
Neighborhoods like this have become the epicenter of the lingering protest movement against the government, places where the walls are alive with graffiti denouncing the royal family and a game of cat and mouse ensues nightly between truckloads of heavily armed riot police and stone-throwing youths.
On a recent night, the loud booms of stun grenades mingled alongside the sounds of elderly women banging huge pots in a sign the protest was about to kick off. Drivers beeped their horns in alliance with the protesters as the acrid smell of tear gas drifted across the rooftops.
The Hubail brothers aren't taking part in the protests any more and spend most of their days at the family compounds. Alaa has recently signed a deal to play for an Omani football club, but Mohammed is still searching for a team. He refused to return to former club Al Alhi after it insisted he sign a statement admitting to his crimes.
Mohammed Hubail still can't get over his treatment in jail — claiming he was blindfolded, handcuffed and kicked and beaten with hoses relentlessly by the police — and is angry that neither the executives from Al Alhi nor any of his fellow players stood up for him.
Mohammed has begun to question whether he will ever play soccer again. Even if the charges are dropped and the national team offers him a spot, Mohammed Hubail isn't sure he wants to wear Bahrain's red and white jersey.
"Sure, I want to play. But first we need a solution to all of this," he said. "I need to know what is going to happen to me. For our community, the nation, how long are we going to be like this?"