The annual FIFA Congress took place in Mauritius on Friday, 31 May for eight and a half hours. For seven of them I was arrested, detained and charged in a Port Louis police station.
Inside FIFA delegates passed sanctions against racism and discrimination.
Outside union leaders and football fans were arrested while protesting about the discrimination of migrant workers in Qatar, hosts of the 2022 World Cup.
The slow FIFA reform process has been described as a super tanker changing course. For some of us that super tanker ran aground on the island of Mauritius.
“Re-run the vote, no World Cup without workers’ rights, www.rerunthevote.org,” the policeman, perched on his motorbike in front our banners read out in a loud voice into his police radio.
Next, we heard him giving each us holding the three protest banners a number – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
The law in Mauritius allows gatherings of less than 12 people without police authorisation.
Normally at small peaceful gatherings, the police will arrive and count the number of people present. If there are one or two people over they are asked to stand to one side, and the protest continues.
So we stood with our banners in the early morning sunshine, waving at the busloads of FIFA delegates as they entered the congress centre. Many waved back.
In front of us the FIFA officials, dressed in their smart suits spoke nervously into the microphones in their lapels. Like the security detail for dictators, they were worried that the message on our banners did not match their party line of their bosses.
After the police cars stopped in front of us, it took just a few seconds for the sergeant to rip one of the banners out of our hands, and throw it in the back of the police station wagon.
Out of nowhere the police numbers seemed to swell from 2 to 20. While the men shouted, another woman and I took the banner out of the station wagon and held it up again.
For a few moments the protest continued, before the arrests started.
There was nothing orderly about being arrested. There was shouting in Creole, English and French. Naraindranath Gopee, President of the Civil Service unions and a veteran union activist, was dragged away by four policemen – each taking an arm and a leg.
Our merry team of peaceful protesters was bundled into a van. Driven away just as a convoy of FIFA VIPs drove past in their black SUVs, with tinted windows and an escort of police outriders.
The Chief Inspector of Port Louis CID was a large man, the buttons on his shirt straining across his ample girth.
He spoke with a sigh, his Friday now awash with pointless paperwork and two international detainees. This was not a situation of his making.
For seven hours I was not free to leave. Charged with taking part in an unauthorised gathering with more than 12 people.
After lunch, the Director of Public Prosecutions dropped the charges and on signing a statement confirming that I had no marks on me and had not been mistreated, I was free to go.
5000 kilometres away in Qatar, Zahir Belounis is not a free man. Today, the French footballer remains trapped. It will only take one signature on his exit permit to allow him, his wife and two young daughters to leave the country. But the signature remains elusive.
The slavery and discrimination faced by Zahir and more than a million migrant workers cannot go unreformed. With Qatar hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022 workers’ rights are in the spotlight.
Wherever FIFA goes, we will be there to remind them of how a World Cup host country treats their workers.
Wherever Qatar invests we will be there to remind them of the way they treat migrant workers at home.
We will campaign until every migrant worker in Qatar is free, until every migrant worker is given their rights.
Check out the photo gallery of the peaceful protest and arrests at the FIFA Congress in Mauritius on 31 May 2013.
This opinion piece from Gemma Swart was first published by Equal Times on 3 June 2013