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Formula One Formula 1 boss urged to visit tortured human rights defender in a Bahraini prison

As the Bahrain GP gets under way this weekend, jailed political prisoner and mother of four Najah Yusuf will still be in jail for criticising the Western-backed absolute monarchy

FORMULA ONE and the FIA, motorsport’s world governing body, have been called on to visit the tortured Bahraini political prisoner Najah Yusuf in prison ahead of Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix and to use their influence in the autocratic monarchy to demand her release. 

Campaigners from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, PEN International and 10 others published an open letter to the FIA president Jean Todt, highlighting the country’s abysmal human rights and press freedom violations, including against people protesting the Bahrain Grand Prix.

“The Bahraini government attaches great importance to the Bahrain Grand Prix as a glamour status symbol of progress and international prestige,” the letter states. 

“For this reason, the race has become a focal point for protests calling for political reform as well as a pretext for the authorities to further crack down on free speech and assembly.

“Leading human rights organisations have documented the spike in human rights abuses that occur each year around the time of the race. 

“The Bahraini government uses such events, and the lack of global concern about such abuses, to sanitise — or ‘sports-wash’— its image abroad while continuing to abuse its citizens domestically.”

The letter draws Todt’s attention to Yusuf’s case. The human rights activist and mother of four was arrested in April 2017 after the kingdom’s authorities deemed her social media posts as “promoting and encouraging people to overthrow the political and social systems.”

Writing from her prison on the Guardian’s website today Yusuf told of how guards interrogated her and threatened to kill her son. 

“[Worst] of all, officers tore off my hijab and attempted to strip me of my clothes, before an officer sexually assaulted me in custody. 

“The pain and humiliation of that week will haunt me for the rest of my life. All this because I took a stand against state repression and the Grand Prix.”

Yusuf was forced to sign a confession and found herself in front of an uncaring judge who sentenced her to three years in prison. 

“In 2017, I backed the calls for the ‘freedom for Formula detainees.’ I never thought I would become one of them,” she concludes in her article. 

“Every moment I spend in prison stains the reputation of Formula One, who have abandoned their commitment to freedom of expression and allowed injustice to be perpetrated in their name.

“Despite the fervour of excitement, I implore all fans of Formula One to remember my story and the suffering of thousands of Bahraini citizens. Don’t allow the race to be stained by Bahrain’s human rights abuses.”

Bahrain’s jails are fast filling up with activists and human rights defenders, including several journalists, some of whom are serving prison sentences for covering protests against the Grand Prix. 

“It is noteworthy,” the open letter reads, “that award-winning photographer Mohammad al-Sheikh was also detained shortly before the race in 2017.

“[There] is a clear pattern of repression and detention of journalists and restriction of press freedom by the Bahraini authorities around the races.”

Campaigners have tirelessly called on Formula One to follow their own human rights guidelines and not to take the oil-rich, absolute monarchy’s government on its word. 

“We have escalated our calls for Najah and Humaidan’s release with FIA leaders and hope this letter will be a wake-up call for Formula One which compels them to take the arrests of journalists and activists around their race seriously,” said Bird director Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei yesterday. 

“Formula One should not continue to shirk responsibility for these cases by accepting the hollow assurances of the Bahraini government. 

“At the very least, we expect FIA and F1 leaders to visit them in prison to send the signal to Bahraini leaders such arrests should not be part of the Grand Prix.”

Bird and London Campaign Against the Arms Trade will be holding a protest outside Formula One’s London Headquarters, 2 St James’s Market, SW1Y 4AH, on Friday at 11am. Visit mstar.link/BahrainGP for details. 

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