As Formula One racers screeched around bends in Bahrain this weekend, activists called on officials to denounce the country’s backsliding record on human rights. Hundreds of protesters took the streets to demand a release of political prisoners. Many of them held signs with images of race cars along with the words, “we demand equality and justice.”
“The problem is that the F1 isn’t just being used as part of that whitewash, the F1 actually causes human rights violations in Bahrain,” Maryam al-Khawaja, of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights told the Guardian. “Right before the race we have the government going on an arrest spree to try and prevent protest. We have protesters cracked down on during the F1 and the violence that is used is usually more than what we see for the rest of the year. F1 causes human rights violations and for that reason it should not come to Bahrain.”
For many Bahraini activists the grand spectacle of glittering lights and fast cars are an ironic contrast to the brutal repression they have faced since they first started to protest the country’s authoritarian monarchy in a wave of protests across the Middle East four years ago.
“We don’t go anywhere to judge how a country is run. I keep asking people, ‘what human rights?’ — I don’t know what they are,” Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One racing said in 2013.
Last year, the Washington, DC-based Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain issued a complaint against Formula One with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development alleging that the racing organization had fallen afoul of guidelines that require businesses to “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts and address such impacts when they occur” and to “prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their business operations.”
This week, Formula One issued a “Statement of Commitment to Respect for Human Rights.” In the statement, which was posted on the Formula One website, the racing enterprise promised to “understand and monitor through our due diligence processes the potential human rights impacts of our activities.”
And yet, the race went on. As he greeted fellow royals and dignitaries ahead of the first race on Sunday, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said that Formula One racing has put Bahrain on the map. “Such a global sporting event offers a good opportunity to strengthen bonds of friendship, bolster co-operation and consolidate cultural ties between peoples and countries,” he said.
That sentiment is exactly why activists see the race as an opportunity to focus international attention on the ongoing abuses they face, which were laid out in a damning report by Amnesty International released just ahead of the Grand Prix. “The Bahraini authorities, during the Formula One, they want to portray a country that is at peace with itself, which is not the case if you look at the human rights violence taking place inside the country,” Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, told VICE News. “If you look at the fourth anniversary of the protests of 2011 just a couple of months ago, you can see that Bahrain is still continuing to live through a human rights crises.”
In a dark turn for the hopes of the Arab Spring, pro-democracy activism in Bahrain did not herald in new freedoms and opportunities, but rather the efforts were met with harsher suppression. For years now, the tensions within the country have exploded around the Formula One Grand Prix.
The Bahraini government cancelled the race during the height of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011 due to instability, but the race has since returned to the country. And while the protest tradition continued at this latest race, restrictions on journalists largely prevented international media from reporting on them.
In 2012, Police threw teargas at Bahraini activists — mostly Shia Muslims hoping to overthrow the country’s Sunni rulers — ahead of the Grand Prix in 2012. As the smoke cleared after a night of clashes, one protester, a 36-year-old man named Salah Abbas Habib Musa, was found dead.
In 2013, two women who protested the detention of Bahriani political activists near the Formula One circuit were arrested and sentenced to five years in prison on what many believed to be trumped up charges of “possession of explosives” and “planning to commit terrorist acts.” In interviews with Amnesty International, the women said that they were beaten, forced to strip, and harassed by police while in custody.
“The death of protester Salah Abbas [in 2012] was an avoidable tragedy,” Husain Abdulla of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain said. “If Formula One management, sponsors, and teams had demanded that the Government of Bahrain protect the fundamental human rights of protesters during the race, or had pulled their support of the race during any number of escalations prior to the event, Salah Abbas would still be alive and hundreds of protesters would not have been jailed or tortured.”
This year, hundreds of protesters took to the streets to mark the anniversary of the February 14, 2011 anniversary of the launch of the anti-government movement. Protesters threw stones and burned tires while police shot back with tear gas canisters and sound bombs — and, according to some, bullets.
The uprising four years ago sparked the violent suppression of protests that led to a wide scale curtailment of rights, including the freedom to demonstrate. Rights groups allege that the Bahraini government has shut down organizations and revoked citizenship of those engaged in dissent. Activists have continued to criticize the state, like the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab who has been imprisoned for two years after he tweeted comments that were critical of the government.
Earlier this month, Rajab wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama in the New York Times urging him to do more to promote democratic reforms in the Middle East.
In seeming disregard for its new standards on human rights, Formula One gave the green light to Azerbaijan to host the European Grand Prix next season.
Similar to Bahrain, authorities in Azerbaijan have violently clamped down on protests, jailed political activists, and tortured prisoners, according to rights groups.
When asked if the country’s human rights record would be checked in accordance with its new standards before the race, Bernie Ecclestone, the 84-year-old head of Formula One said, “I think everybody seems to be happy. There doesn’t seem to be any big problem there.”