The Foreign Office may bar Syria’s most senior Olympic official from attending the London games, even though he is not on an official banned list, Hugh Robertson, the sports minister has said.
General Mowaffak Joumaa told ITV News this month that he intended to be in London for the games in his capacity as president of Syria’s national Olympic committee, along with other officials and Syrian athletes.
The British government has maintained that it would be wrong to ban the Syrian team altogether because of international outrage at President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown against protesters.
“We don’t intend to punish the athletes for the sins of their rulers,” said Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, at an event to mark 100 days to go to the London 2012 opening ceremony. The Olympics should be an opportunity to unite peoples, he added, rather than be seen as “an opportunity to preach about our values”.
But Mr Hunt referred to travel bans set up by the European Union and the UN, and said the government would look carefully at who would be allowed to come to the Olympics.
Mr Robertson said the Syrian regime as a whole was on the EU banned list. “There is then a second level down, where anyone who applies for a visa for the games who comes from a country where there might be questions raised goes in front of a committee where those cases are individually looked at,” he said.
“Any that are contentious come to ministers to sign off, and we have the power to refuse anybody a visa.”
He added that the decision would be taken by William Hague, the foreign secretary.
Mr Robertson hinted that any Syrian Olympic officials regarded as undesirable by the UK government may soon be named on the EU list. “By far the best way [of barring them] is to get these people on the EU or UN list,” he said.
The sports minister also said the UK government did not intend to get involved in a dispute between the International Olympic Committee and Saudi Arabia over the desert kingdom’s refusal to allow women to compete at the Olympics.
“The IOC are working on the issue,” said Mr Robertson.