22 June 2017 – Human rights campaigners have told Formula 1 to “reconsider its plans for a 2018 race in Bahrain”, citing a crackdown on press freedoms and police brutality ahead of this weekend’s Baku Grand Prix. The Bahrain race has been controversial since its cancellation in 2011 and contentious return in 2012, during which a protester was killed by police.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD): “It’s time for Formula One to reconsider its decision on races in Bahrain. The Al Khalifa rulers are exercising their harshest repressive campaign against their populations since the Arab Spring. Police are killing innocent people with impunity and journalists have been silenced, while Bahrain’s government continues to use the F1 as a photo opportunity to whitewash these abuses. The F1 must take this very seriously when they put races forward for next year’s season.”
Today’s letter, signed by five NGOs, comes days after the FIA World Motor Sport Council approved the provisional 2018 season calendar, which places the Bahrain race in mid-April next year. The campaigners write: “”e ask Formula 1 to reconsider its plans for a 2018 race in Bahrain … in light of the severe restrictions on journalists rendering free reporting impossible and the Bahraini authorities’ continued use of excessive and indiscriminate force.”
The Baku Grand Prix, which this year is held on 25 June and next year is set to occur back-to-back with Bahrain in April, has been hit with similar controversies: last year, the Sports for Rights coalition urged Formula 1 to comply with its human rights responsibilities in Azerbaijan. Bahrain’s Prince Nasser, a son of the king, is in Baku for the Grand Prix this weekend. The Bahraini prince, who is president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and commander of the Royal Guard, lost his diplomatic immunity in the United Kingdom in 2014 over torture allegations.
The letter is signed by Article 19, Index on Censorship, BIRD, European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) who led negotiations with Formula 1 in 2015 that led to the adoption of its human rights commitments.
Husain Abdulla, Executive Director, ADHRB: “Formula 1 has a duty to uphold human rights wherever it races. Bahrain’s current, deadly crackdown on civil society, journalists and protesters shows no sign of slowing down, let alone improving. Formula 1 must tell Bahrain from now that they cannot hold a race at the Sakhir track unless this human rights crisis is resolved.
The rights groups continued, “The April 2017 Grand Prix coincided with government reprisals against journalists and the excessively forceful suppression of protesters.” They indicate that journalists were not free to express themselves during the race, citing Bahrain’s bottom 20 ranking in the World Press Freedom Index and the arbitrary denial of journalist licenses. The campaigners state police used excessive force against protesters, citing an incident in Sitra, south of the capital Manama, and a police blockade in Duraz village, west of the capital. This blockade, which began June last year, continued during the Formula 1 period and to the present. In May police arrested 286 and killed five in a raid on protesters in Duraz. The NGOs also present data of arrests conducted during the 2015 and 2016 Grands Prix, which saw a spike in police arrest of protesters in both years.
The emphasis on these two issues is in response to an earlier letter from Formula 1 on 16 April, the day of the Bahrain Grand Prix. In that letter, Formula 1 stated it is “committed to respecting human rights in all its operations”, listing two expectations: that journalists and other commentators who use the Grand Prix to express their views “be able to do so without reprisal” and that law enforcement use “lawful and proportionate measures in respect of any demonstrations” around the time of the event. That letter was a response to a first letter, sent by some of today’s signatories, which raised the “alarming situation in the country”.
Last week, five UN human rights experts called on Bahrain to “immediately cease its campaign of persecution against human rights defenders, journalists and anyone else with divergent opinions.” Since the Grand Prix, the Government of Bahrain has cracked down on civil society. The last major opposition society, Wa’ad, was dissolved in May, and the only independent newspaper, Al Wasat, was suspended in early June. Human rights defenders have endured torture for their work. The Government of Bahrain last week abruptly and indefinitely postponed a trip by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which was set to take place this week.