Thirty UK cross-party politicians, including Liberal Democrats leader Sir Ed Davey and former Green party leader Caroline Lucas, delivered a letter to F1 chief executive Chase Carey on Tuesday calling for him to implement the sport’s human rights policy, following a long history of concerns regarding the Bahrain Grand Prix.
In the letter, MPs expressed a “concern that the Bahrain Grand Prix is exploited by Bahrain’s government to ‘sportswash’ their human rights record”, while the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) called on F1 to “put people above profit and rights above racing”.
“It’s deeply disappointing that we haven’t seen more progress from F1 when it comes to sports washing and Bahrain’s human rights record,” Layla Moran MP, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, added to The Independent after sending the letter on behalf of the 30 signatories.
“We can’t let human rights ever be a secondary consideration”.
For the first time since the inaugural Grand Prix in 2004, Bahrain will host back-to-back events over the course of the next two weekends as part of the emergency 2020 season, which was redrawn following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The race was cancelled in 2011 due to anti-government protests against human rights abuses, with the civil unrest leaving conditions too unsafe for F1 to visit. The Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir has held a Grand Prix every year since, despite Human Rights Watch issuing a report at the start of the year stating that the crisis was at a worse level now than it was in 2011 due to “systematic campaign of retribution” and the “routine use of torture” against anti-government activists.
The letter follows seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton’s recent comments that the sport can no longer “ignore” the human rights records of countries the sport attends, following the highly controversial addition of Saudi Arabia to the 2021 calendar.
After claiming his record-equalling seventh world title at the recent Turkish Grand Prix and with the world watching, Hamilton said on the podium: “We realise we’ve got to face and not ignore the human rights issues in the countries that we go to, not just 20 years, 30 years from now, but now.”
Hamilton’s words have not gone unnoticed, with one of Britain’s most successful athletes in history putting a spotlight on an issue that, in Bahrain, has been a focal point for decades.
“When F1’s most successful driver is speaking out about human rights, it is shameful that F1 is continuing to allow its Bahraini partners to ‘sportswash’ their abysmal human rights record,” Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton, Pavilion, told The Independent.
“It is people like Salah Abbas, Najah Yusuf and her son Kameel who are paying the price for this. I hope this letter helps to spotlight the need for F1 to urgently intervene on their behalf ahead of this week’s races in Bahrain.”
Moran led the calls for F1 to take appropriate action this weekend to ensure it is living up to its 2015 promise to respect human rights in operations globally, following an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) complaint by Americans For Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB).
She added: “They must care for Bahrainis negatively impacted by the Grand Prix as much as they do for participants. We can’t let human rights ever be a secondary consideration.
“That’s why we’re calling on Formula 1 to use its leverage to compel Bahrain to end the suppression of protests against the race, secure redress for victims and ensure the rights of Bahraini citizens are defended.”
Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith, claimed that the increasing scrutiny on nations who do not hold a good reputation when it comes to human rights means F1 is left with little defence for not doing more to speak out.
“At a time when many sportsmen and women are speaking up more clearly on human rights issues and addressing the concerns of their fans, the long silence of Formula 1 on the appalling human rights record of countries like Bahrain, which host lucrative races and ‘sportswash’ their reputation while clamping down on their own citizens for the race period, becomes more noticeable and less defensible.”
Human rights groups have long criticised the event for enabling the Bahrain government to ‘sportswash’ its reputation, with prominent female Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf jailed in 2017 for opposing the Grand Prix online on social media. Yusuf told The Independent last year following her release that she was “sexually assaulted and tortured” while in police custody, something that the Bahraini embassy in London said was investigated with no evidence to support the claims being found.
Bahraini authorities have denied that Yusuf and her son, Kameel, were arrested for their peaceful protest regarding the Grand Prix, and said they were detained on terror offences, treated with due legal process and that there has been no evidence of human rights abuses.
Bahrain, which has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family for more than two centuries, is “one of the Middle East’s most repressive states” according to US NGO Freedom House.
When contacted by The Independent, a Formula 1 spokesperson said: “We have always been clear with all race promoters and governments with which we deal worldwide that we take violence, abuse of human rights and repression very seriously.
“Our human rights policy is very clear and states that the Formula 1 companies are committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally and have made our position on human rights clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.”
The Bahraini government rejected allegations of human rights abuses. “Bahrain takes its obligations in this regard extremely seriously, and is committed to upholding and maintaining the highest standards of human rights protection, including the right to free expression,” it said in a statement.
“Strong and effective constitutional and legal safeguards are in place to protect such rights and freedoms, with well-established, independent and transparent mechanisms to investigate and remedy (and where appropriate, prosecute) any shortcomings.
“No person is arrested or prosecuted for the peaceful expression of their opinion, and all persons arrested (regardless of the charge) benefit from full due process safeguards, including the right to representation and the right to fair trial before Bahrain’s independent judiciary. Further, the claims of torture and/or retribution are categorically denied.”