Formula One urged to quit Bahrain

Human rights groups’ pressure for boycott to highlight continuing unrest.

Formula One car 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Formula One car 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The pressure is on again for Formula One to quit its Grand Prix in Bahrain over that country’s steadily declining human rights abuses.
Unrest in the Gulf island kingdom last spring led to the cancellation of the high-profile race in Bahrain last year, a move human rights groups want repeated.
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Bahrain had been dropped from the 2011 calendar following protests from Formula One teams and drivers after widespread civil unrest last February and March.  But by September Bahrain it was able to win back a spot on this year’s racing schedule, a boost for the country’s key tourism industry and a vote of confidence. Now, the Formula One Grand Prix is slated to take place on April 22
That will be disappointing to all those people who were killed and injured in the uprising that was calling for democracy and human rights that is why I urge all the teams, the drivers, the mechanics, those people who are working close with Formula One to boycott it,” Nabeel Rajab, president for Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Media Line.
“This is the wrong message to send to my government. My government committed a lot of crimes against humanity. And coming  to Bahrain at this point of time when you have hundreds of political prisoners, you have people whose have been tortured and whose houses have been raided and mosques have been demolished and at the same you have Formula One coming to Bahrain, that is the wrong message, a negative message. Bahraini people will be upset by it. And I hope those teams will boycott it,” Rajab said.
Rajab said that many Bahraini people working for Formula One in the past had been detained and tortured and he hoped their international colleagues would show solidarity with them by refusing to come to Bahrain.
Reached by The Media Line, an official from Bahrain International Circuit, which hosts the high-profile race, declined to comment on the reports.
No comment was immediately available from Formula One. But in November, Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s chief executive officer, told British media that the race would take place as scheduled unless “something terrible happens to stop us.”
Bahrain reportedly paid around $39.2 million in hosting fees for last year’s scrapped three-day race.
When the premier Formula One race was first hosted by Bahrain in 2004, it put the Middle East firmly on the map of auto racing. Often regarded as the world’s most widely followed of motor sport, more than half a billion people tuned into Formula One races last year.
Bahrain has been the only Gulf country to be swept up in the Arab Spring turmoil. It is a tiny, oil-poor country, but is of key concern to its neighbors and to the US, which bases the Navy’s Fifth Fleet there. It is located in the waters between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Its mixed population of Sunnis and Shiites makes it a flashpoint in the sectarian cold war between the two Muslim sects.
Thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March last year demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination. King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa imposed martial law and brought Saudi and United Arab Emirate (UAE) forces into the country to crack down on demonstrators who demanded political reform and greater freedoms in Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority Bahrain.
But the severity of the crackdown – which left about 60 dead and led to the arrest of some 1,400 people, many of them still in prison – has left many Bahrainis feeling alienated and disillusioned. Small-scale clashes between police and mostly Shiite demonstrators have persisted on an almost daily basis.
King Hamad has recently agreed to implement some gestures of political reform following an independent commission which found police used excessive force against
anti-government protesters.
Last week, a Bahraini woman reportedly died from inhaling tear gas during a demonstration near the capital of Manama. And over the weekend, Reporters Without Borders issued a report condemning Bahrain security forces for intimidating and attacking journalists.
Mariwan Hama-Saeed, of New York-based Human Rights Watch, also said Formula One had no place in a country where the police were guilty of using excessive force and torture.
“I doubt that Formula One can be a success in a country where serious human rights abuses have been committed. The political situation is unstable and polarized in Bahrain,” Hama-Saeed was quoted as saying in Arabian Business.
Bahrain was the only Arab country to host a Formula One World Championship (FOM) race until 2009, when Abu Dhabi succeeded in bringing the event to the United Arab Emirates. Another Gulf emirate, Qatar, too, has it wants to host the Formula One as part of a strategy to draw more sports to the emirate