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Formula 1 Overshadows Human Rights Abuses in Bahrain, Even as They Spike During the Race

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By Said Yousif Al-Muhafdah

 

While Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen were closing the final lap of the 2015 Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain, and then celebrated with teammates and engineers, they were probably unaware that they were gifting Bahrain’s authorities with another image of success since Formula 1 landed in the tiny Gulf Island in 2004. Another success masking abuses the regime is committing against its own people. Human rights violations are the norm, freedom of speech is prosecuted and those who speak their minds end up jailed, imprisoned without a trial, and tortured.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa was in the picture when awarding the British racer with the winning driver's trophy at the podium. The royal house has managed to keep its rule over the country by crushing the opposition, especially since the 2011 popular uprising; the year when the Bahraini Grand Prix was cancelled. The following years carried brutal crackdowns on protesters in order to have this race back up and running.

During the month of Formula 1 in Bahrain, human rights violations are often at their peak both in terms of severity and the amount documented. The number of arrests increases considerably compared to other months of the year. Most arrests are carried out illegally while suppressing ongoing protests. Protesters are usually subjected to severe torture during and after arrest

During the 2013 Grand Prix, Rayhana Al-Mosawi and Nafeesa Al-Asfoor were arrested while protesting at the circuit. The two young women were taken from there straight into custody, beaten, tortured and forced to sign a confession. Their forced confessions were used to convict them in a sham trial in which they were sentenced to five years in prison. Additionally, the number of injuries documented among protesters escalates as security forces use excessive force to suppress calls for democracy and freedom. Forced confessions, severe torture, and excessive use of force are common practices in Bahrain. However, not even such practices could stop the race in 2012, when human rights activists pushed for the Grand Prix to be cancelled, drivers agreed but only because they selfishly felt their own safety was endangered.

A country that currently keeps more than 3000 people under arbitrary arrest, tortures detainees, bans freedom of speech and sentences people to jail for “misuse of social media” should not be celebrated, let alone get such positive media attention. But this is exactly what the Formula 1 is doing for the regime. It is the perfect distraction, not for Bahrainis, but for international media to focus on sports in Bahrain and overlook the blatant human rights violations happening at the very same time as the superstar drivers warm the tires in the heat of the track.

The Formula 1 organization and the International Automobile Association (FIA) acquiesce with the Bahraini regime when allowing them to host the Grand Prix, as a silent approve of the various violations of human rights that are acted out by the regime. Flashes of the celebrities at the paddock and the glitter of Mercedes and Ferrari outshine the dark and gloomy jails where prisoners are beaten, have their citizenships revoked and are sentenced to life imprisonment and death.

Journalists from all over the world will visit Bahrain this weekend, to see whether McLaren has managed to engineer a car which can compete head to head with both Ferrari and Mercedes. However, they should bear in mind that on the same soil they are stepping on, journalists and photographers like them are targeted and prosecuted. Even unlawfully imprisoned for doing their job to inform about and protect the human right to freedom of speech.

The flashes and luxury of the Formula 1 circus are always a great chance for a country to sell itself as the perfect tourist destination and to make powerful contacts in the highest spheres, while the suppressed population falls off the priority agenda. They are left to be tortured, prosecuted or extradited. As long as the show goes on, no one seems to care. The real dilemma here is that the Bahraini regime and the international community ignore the suffering of regular civilians basically in favor of the profit of TV entertainment on a Sunday afternoon.

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