LONDON/KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, AFP) - The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) on Sunday (Jan 27) stripped Malaysia of the right to host the 2019 world para swimming championships after the country banned Israeli athletes from participating.
The championships, a qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, had been scheduled for Kuching between July 29 and Aug 4.
The IPC said a new venue would be sought for the same dates, although there might have to be some flexibility in the light of the circumstances.
"All World Championships must be open to all eligible athletes and nations to compete safely and free from discrimination," said IPC president Andrew Parsons in a statement after a meeting of the IPC governing board in London.
"When a host country excludes athletes from a particular nation, for political reasons, then we have absolutely no alternative but to look for a new Championships host."
Malaysia is one of several Muslim states that have no formal diplomatic ties with Israel. It is forbidden to enter the country on an Israeli passport.
The country announced this month that it would bar Israelis from any event held in the South-east Asia nation to stand in solidarity with Palestine.
Israel had condemned the ban as 'shameful' and said the decision was inspired by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's "rabid anti-Semitism".
"This is a victory of values over hatred and bigotry, a strong statement in favour of freedom and equality. Thank you @Paralympics for your brave decision," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon on Twitter.
Malaysia said in response to the IPC's decision that it "prioritises human rights".
Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman said if hosting an international sporting event is more important than standing up for Palestinians, that means Malaysia has truly lost its moral compass.
"We would like to kindly remind the IPC that even Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported that the (Israeli prime minister Benjamin) Netanyahu government is an active perpetrator of war crimes," Syed Saddiq said in a press statement.
"As the leader of Israel, he represents the collective will of the Israeli government. The Israeli state is the locus of their collective moral actions.
"Malaysia stands firmly with our decision on the ground of humanity and compassion for the Palestinian plight. We will not compromise."
Mahathir, 93, has for decades been accused of anti-Semitism for his attacks against Jews. In a BBC interview last October, he described Jews as "hook-nosed" and blamed them for the troubles in the Middle East.
The Palestinian cause has widespread support in Malaysia and thousands took to the streets in protest when US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.
Malaysia has prevented Israeli athletes from competing in a sports event before. Two Israeli windsurfers had to pull out of a competition on the island of Langkawi after they were refused visas in 2015.
Kuala Lumpur also refused to host a conference for world football’s governing body FIFA in 2017 as an Israeli delegation was due to attend.
Some 600 swimmers from 60 countries had been expected to compete in the para championships in the eastern state of Sarawak, with more than 160 titles to be won.
The IPC said all potential replacement hosts were asked to express an interest by Feb 11.
"The Paralympic Movement has, and always will be, motivated by a desire to drive inclusion, not exclusion," said Parsons in the statement.
"Regardless of the countries involved in this matter, the IPC would take the same decision again if it was to face a similar situation involving different countries."
He said that when Malaysia was awarded the championships in 2017, the IPC had been given assurances that all eligible athletes and countries would be allowed to participate with their safety assured.
"Since then, there has been a change of political leadership and the new Malaysian government has different ideas," said Parsons.
"Politics and sport are never a good mix and we are disappointed that Israeli athletes would not have been allowed to compete in Malaysia."