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Formula one ‘complicit’ in Bahrain's human rights abuses

Human rights campaigners condemn F1's decision to rely on false assurances by the Western-backed absolute monarchy

HUMAN Rights campaigners accused Forumla One of being complicit in the Bahraini regime’s long list of human rights abuses today.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), Human Rights Watch and 15 other organisations wrote to Formula One’s general counsel Sacha Woodward Hill last month calling on her organisation to publicly urge the Bahraini authorities to drop the charges against tortured human rights activist Najah Yusuf.

Ms Yusuf was arrested in April 2017 and sentenced to three years in prison in June 2018 after the Western-backed kingdom’s authorities deemed her social media posts to be “promoting and encouraging people to overthrow the political and social systems.”

The letter addressed to Ms Hill stressed that Bahrain’s High Criminal Court cited Ms Yusuf’s peaceful criticism of the country’s Grand Prix 2017 in its judgement against her. 

The letter states: “In April 2017, according to a written statement by Ms Yusuf, officers from the Bahraini National Security Agency allegedly interrogated and subjected her to physical abuse, sexual assault and psychological torture a week after she released a series of posts critical of the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix. Shortly thereafter, Ms Yusuf maintains that she was forced to sign a prepared confession.”

“Formula One’s own policy,” the the letter reminds Ms Hill, “requires that you consider the human rights impact of your activities and conduct the necessary due diligence,” as do the UN’s guiding principles on buisness and human rights and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s guidelines for multinational enterprises.

In her reply to the human rights organisations on Monday, Ms Hill said F1 had “made enquiries in Bahrain in an attempt to understand the reasons for Ms Yusuf’s arrest and detention. 

“We were assured that Ms Yusuf’s detention, the charges she faced, her trial and her subsequent conviction had nothing to do with peaceful protest around the Bahraini Grand Prix. Rather, the charges related to events that pre-date the 2017 Grand Prix and cover issues unrelated to Formula One.”

Ms Hill said the money-drenched sport organisation had asked the Bahraini regime for assurances that those peacefully criticising the Grand Prix would not face punitive measures. 

“In response we were assured that anyone who merely criticised or continues to criticise Formula 1 in Bahrain is free to do so, can say whatever they want, and would be left alone to do so.”

A simple Google search of the words “Bahrain” and “human rights,” however, brings up Amnesty International’s damning overview of the absolute monarchy’s human rights record in 2018. 

Amnesty says: “The government launched a large-scale campaign to clamp down on all forms of dissent by repressing the rights to freedom of expression and association of human rights defenders and government critics.

“Scores of people were sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials. Authorities stripped at least 150 people of their Bahraini nationality, rendering the majority stateless. Mass protests were met with excessive force, resulting in the deaths of five men and one child and the injury of hundreds.”

Responding to Ms Hill’s letter today, Bird’s director of advocacy Sayed Alwadaei said F1’s commitment to human rights means nothing. 

“F1’s decision to continually rely on false assurances by the Bahraini government, including that Yusuf’s imprisonment has nothing to do with her criticism of the Grand Prix, is extremely disappointing.

“Months have passed since F1 initially raised concerns for Yusuf, and yet no changes have been reflected in her situation. If anything, her situation has worsened in the interim. She remains unlawfully imprisoned, having last seen her family almost six months ago.

“F1’s response amounts to complicity in covering up for Bahrain. Its response is not representative of an organisation that is allegedly committed to international human rights, including free expression. 

“Instead, F1 is aiding Bahrain’s warning that no-one should dare to criticise the race and if they do, they will receive the fate of Yusuf, and F1 will take Bahrain’s word and remain silent. This has to change.”

Aya Majzoub, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch was also disappointed by Ms Hill’s response. 

“Taking the Bahraini government’s assurances that no punitive measures will be directed against activists for peacefully opposing the Grand Prix is absurd given Bahrain’s track record of repressive measures to close down protests opposing the races in the country,” Majzoub said.  

“At least one protester has been killing during the Grand Prix, and security forces have in the past conducted home raids in the vicinity of the race circuit and arbitrarily detained opposition figures. 

“Formula One has also chosen to ignore the serious, ongoing human rights violations occurring in Bahrain. Authorities regularly imprison and convict peaceful opposition members and human rights defenders, many of whom have alleged torture in detention. 

“But while peaceful opposition members receive lengthy prison sentences, officials involved in the widespread abuse of detainees have yet to be held to account.

“Formula One’s response indicates that it is willing to look the other way while Bahrain engages in severe human rights abuses, and it is complicit in Bahrain’s attempted use of the Grand Prix to whitewash those abuses.”

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