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Home / Blog / The F1 Grand Prix: A Chance to Spotlight Bahrain’s Abysmal Record on Rights
March 26, 2021

The F1 Grand Prix: A Chance to Spotlight Bahrain’s Abysmal Record on Rights

The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain will make global headlines this weekend as it hosts the prestigious Formula 1 Grand Prix auto race. Access to Bahrain for international journalists is rare, and they should take the opportunity to write about the U.S-backed dictatorship’s horrific human rights record.

This week Human Rights First joined other NGOs in calling on Stefano Domenicali, the new CEO of Formula 1, “to commission an independent inquiry into the human rights implications of F1’s presence in the country.” Sixty UK parliamentarians support the call. The F1 world champion, Sir Lewis Hamilton, has joined criticism of the F1’s record, saying it has a “consistent and massive problem” with human rights.

We’re doing our advocacy from afar because the Kingdom, trying to conceal its crimes, shuts out international human rights observers. I’ve been banned since 2012 when I reported on the torture and sham trials of medics who had treated injured pro-democracy protestors. In 2014 I was denied entry along with U.S. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA). And when I arrived at Bahrain’s airport during the F1 Grand Prix in 2018 with a Member of the Danish Parliament, Lars Aslan Rasmussen, we were detained for 25 hours before being chucked out.

Journalists lucky enough to visit Bahrain this weekend should cover the human rights abuses connected to the F1 race and, better yet, place them in the context of the dictatorship’s suppression of dissent in the decade since the large pro-democracy protests in 2011. The U.S. nonetheless continues to send large amounts of arms to Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Formula 1 canceled the race in 2011 following the regime’s crackdown but resumed it the following year. Since then, the government has routinely suppressed protests against the Grand Prix. In 2013 a woman told me masked men had seized her family member in a dawn raid: "We live so close to the track we can hear the cars racing. Masked men came and took him and we've heard nothing since about his whereabouts or what the charge is. He was taken because of this F1.”

In 2015, F1 committed to identifying “any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts'' linked to F1’s activities or business relationships and to “engage in meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders.” Despite this, rights abuses connected to F1’s activities in the country have continued. Najah Yusuf was tortured, sexually assaulted, and sentenced to three years in prison after posting criticism of the Grand Prix on social media in 2017.

In calling for an independent commission, we and the other NGOs are urging F1 to “refrain from ignoring or whitewashing human rights violations by acknowledging publicly documented abuses committed by Bahrain’s government.” The commission should include “a complaints mechanism to allow victims to report abuses.”

An honest appraisal of the human rights climate in Bahrain by the global press would bolster this push for accountability. Sports journalists have a long and honorable record of using major events to expose violence by dictatorships, dating back to at least the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

So journalists allowed into Bahrain this weekend should seize this opportunity to write about more than the cars. If they want to interview those targeted for peacefully promoting human rights, I’d be more than happy to put them in touch.