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Men's Cycling Tour de France organisers urged not to ‘sportwash’ Bahrain's crimes

A COALITION of unions, NGOs and sporting organisations have urged the organisers of the Tour de France not to “sportwash” Bahrain’s human rights abuses. 

In a letter addressed to Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) president David Lappartient, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), the Committee to Protect Journalists, Transparency International Germany, the World Players Association (WPA) and seven other organisations raised concerns over the granting of a WorldTeam licence to Bahrain-Merida pro cycling team, which is funded by the country’s brutal regime. 

Bahrain-Merida was founded in 2017 by the son of Bahrain’s ruling monarch, Prince Nasser bin Isa Alkhalifa, and the Italian pro-cyclist Vincenzo Nibali, with the stated goal of promoting the Kingdom of Bahrain on the international stage. 

The signatories of the letter urge UCI to disclose any ethical evaluation made when renewing Bahrain-Merida’s racing licence in December 2018 and to “consider Bahrain’s human rights record when reviewing [the team’s] licence application for the 2020 cycling season.” 

They also encourage the organisation to ensure its ethics policies conform to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The letter accuses the Bahraini government of using the team “to divert international attention from the country’s appalling human rights record,” a practice known as “sportswashing.” 

Bahrain’s exploitation of similarly prestigious sporting events, such as Formula One’s Bahrain Grand Prix and the Royal Windsor Horse Show, has been criticised repeatedly for presenting a sanitised image of the country to the world’s media. 

Bahrain is accused of leading an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and civil liberties in the country since 2017.

“The persecution of athletes who criticise the government continues to this day,” the letter reads. 

“In November 2018, Bahraini refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi was detained in Thailand for over 70 days under an Interpol red notice triggered by the Bahraini government. 

He was a victim of the crackdown on pro-democracy athletes in 2011 and was later sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment over fabricated charges. 

“Hakeem’s ordeal garnered significant international attention, with Fifa, the [WPA] and the International Olympic Committee all publicly calling for his release. 

“Notably, Prince Nasser failed to comment on Hakeem’s case, despite being the highest sporting authority in the country.”

Bird’s director of advocacy Sayed Ahmed Alwadei said: “Bahrain-Merida’s participation in the Tour de France, one of the world’s most iconic sporting events, provides a major opportunity for the government of Bahrain to sportswash their tarnished international reputation. 

“With a long history of persecuting professional athletes, including credible allegations of torture, Bahrain is a totally unsuitable partner for an international sporting team.

“The UCI has a responsibility to conduct a thorough human rights assessment of all its teams and we urge them to reconsider Bahrain-Merida’s suitability when reviewing their licence later this year. 

“Having worked so hard to rehabilitate professional cycling from its scandal-ridden past, it would be a crying shame if the UCI’s affiliation with Bahrain allowed the organisation to be dragged back into the mire of controversy.”

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