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Formula One Amnesty demands Bahrain ‘immediately repeal laws that criminalise freedom of expression’

AMNESTY International has become the latest human rights group to highlight “the more sinister side” to Bahrain ahead of Sunday’s Formula One race in the Gulf state.

Bahrain has been a controversial grand prix host ever since it joined the F1 calendar in 2004 and the 2011 edition of the race was cancelled following a violent crackdown on anti-government protests.

There were calls from inside and outside the sport to quit Bahrain permanently but F1 returned in 2012 and the sport has largely ignored criticism of the country’s human rights record ever since.

That, however, appears to be changing, as F1 has been forced to issue a statement this week that it is investigating the 2017 imprisonment of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf.

It is alleged that Yusuf was sentenced to three years in prison for simply criticising the government and objecting to the Bahrain Grand Prix in a series of social media posts.

That case, and several others, have been highlighted by the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and global body Human Rights Watch, and now Amnesty has added its voice to the chorus and raised the case of another jailed activist.

In a statement, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns Samah Hadid said: “Beneath the glamour of F1, there is a far more sinister side to Bahrain, revealing the country as a deeply repressive state where anyone critical of the government can be jailed merely for posting a tweet.

“Prominent human rights defenders are under relentless attack in the country. Nabeel Rajab was shamefully convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for tweeting about the conflict in Yemen and torture allegations in Jaw Prison.

“Instead of just ‘sportswashing’ its image and glossing over its dismal human rights record through high-speed sport, the Bahraini government should immediately repeal laws that criminalise freedom of expression and fast-track the release of all prisoners of conscience.”

Amnesty added that the authorities in the small but wealthy country “embarked on a systematic campaign to eliminate organised political opposition” in 2016 and that has resulted in mass trials, widespread arrests and hundreds being stripped of their citizenship.

It also said the country’s majority Shi’ite population has borne the brunt of the repression and there is now “not one Shia political leader of national stature left who has not been detained, imprisoned, or stripped of Bahraini nationality.”

For its part, the Bahrain government has stated it is acting to protect the country against terrorists.

F1 usually tries to avoid making any comment on the politics of their race hosts, but did issue a statement in response to Human Rights Watch’s criticism of the Yusuf case.

“We continue to remind all our promoters, including Bahrain, that peaceful protests at all our events is a democratic right, and we continue to raise our concerns in regard to Ms Yusuf with the Bahraini authorities,” they said.

“Only last week we met to discuss Ms Yusuf’s case with campaigners, we continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding it, and as all these parties are aware, we are working on a number of initiatives in regard to this case, that we, and they, have agreed it would be unhelpful to comment on further at this time.

“Formula 1 is committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in our operations globally and we take all such responsibilities seriously.”

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