Formula 1 urged not to sportswash Manama’s ever-worsening blood-soaked image

Once again, Formula 1 is coming under mounting criticism over its partnership with Bahrain, which has an abysmal human rights record.

In the lead-up to this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, nearly a dozen British MPs want their government to back an “independent and impartial inquiry to assess the implications of F1 races in human rights violation in Bahrain.”

MP Paul Scriven urged F1 to “use the sport for good and for change.”

The MPs made the call through a motion tabled in parliament, in which they articulated “grave concerns over the role of F1 and the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile in sportswashing the appalling human rights records of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”

The two monarchs are hosting F1 races on March 5 and March 19 respectively.

“Bahrain imprisons its population at the highest rate of any country in the Middle East […] with an estimated 1,300 political prisoners,” the motion reads, urging the UK government to “use all available leverage” to press Manama to release political prisoners.

The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), during a presser in the British parliament, called on F1 drivers, including seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, to speak out against rights abuses at season-opening races.

Following an updated version of the sporting code, issued last December, it is no longer permissible for F1 drivers to make “political statements without prior written permission from Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile.”

Hamilton, the most outspoken driver on human rights issues, had vowed to ignore the motorsport’s imposed restrictions.

Bahraini political prisoner Ali Hajee, currently languishing in the notorious Jau Central Prison, wrote to Hamilton affirming that such a decision “perpetuates a policy which muzzles drivers, and makes you its primary target. I, therefore, ask you to fight this policy.”

In March 2022, Hamilton emphasized the need for the weight of change “to come and be put on the governments” in countries like Bahrain, voicing his support for organizations “on the ground fighting for human rights.”

“We realize we have got to face, and not ignore, the human rights issues in the countries that we go to — not just 20 or 30 years from now, but now,” Hamilton previously commented, adding “these places need scrutiny, need the media to speak.”

Another torture victim and death row inmate, Mohammed Ramadhan, has repeatedly appealed for support from Hamilton by wearing a T-shirt showing his support for Bahrain’s political prisoners.

Ahead of last year’s season-opening F1 race, his 12-year-old son, Ahmed, drew Hamilton’s famed No. 44 Mercedes car and wrote, “Sir Lewis, another F1 where my innocent father is on death row. Please help free him.”

Rights groups have frequently accused F1 of overlooking grave rights abuses in Bahrain where authorities routinely detain and torture dissidents.

In a letter penned to F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, BIRD’s director, Sayyed Ahmed al-Wadaei, stated, “Despite horrific human rights records, both states enjoy generous F1 contracts and exploit the F1 platform to sanitize their image on the world stage, while thousands of political prisoners languish behind bars.”

Since the onset of the 2011 pro-democracy protests, the human rights situation in Bahrain has only worsened. Any semblance of freedom has been abandoned as Manama has outlawed opposition political societies, and severely curtailed freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, aiming at muzzling any discordant voice.

The 2011 grand prix was moved from Bahrain after the brutal response, but resumed in 2012, and has continued to lend prestige to the regime every season since.

In November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found that the security services’ actions resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians, due mostly to the use of “excessive and unnecessary lethal force and torture”.

the son of Bahrain’s defacto-ruler, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, led a systematic clamp-down on athletes, following the 2011 pro-democracy protests, and subjected them to various forms of reprisal during the protests.

He publicly called on a “judgment day” for all athletes who took part in the peaceful protest, including Ala’a Hubail and Sayed Mohammad Adnan, and arrested and tortured them, as documented in BICI’s report.

“To everyone that demands the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on their heads. Everyone involved in such issues and networks will be punished. Whether he is an athlete, an activist, or a politician, he will be punished at this time. Today is judgment day. Bahrain is an island and there is no escape,” Nasser said on Air.

Roughly 150 athletes were widely reported to have been arrested, detained, tortured, or excluded from their sports. Nevertheless, Nasser attended London’s Olympics the following year. It was not until 2014 that a UK High Court declared him “immune from prosecution.”

For its part, Riyadh has proved to be an alluring hub for sporting events, over the past years, in an attempt to overhaul its horrific abuses, including the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the devastating war against Yemen, and its ongoing crackdown on intellectuals and reformers.

In a bizarre interview with CNN, Executive Chairman of the Formula One Group, Chase Carey, said the organization was “proud to partner with Bahrainis”.

MP Andy Slaughter described Carey’s response as “pretty lame”, adding it was “clear how F1’s visit to Bahrain sanitizes the regime”. “In gratitude to F1 for their patronage, Bahrain makes sure any potentially embarrassing internal opposition is suppressed for the period around the race”, he admitted.

Indeed, no statement can be considered any more political than the FIA’s choice to recently withdraw from racing in Russia, and to critique China, Iran, or Syria. Holding races in some of the world’s most despotic regimes, like Bahrain, only facilitates clearing its murky reputation. Bahrain is not the glamorous haven of sporting values but an “island and there is no escape” as stated by Nasser!

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