The gripping battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the closing laps at the Bahrain International Circuit last year could not have offered a better showcase for both Formula One and the host nation on the track.
A repeat of those events here on Sunday, however, would take place against the uncomfortable backdrop of claims of human rights abuses in the country that yet again bring into question the sport’s role and perhaps, even, its soul.
After less than 24 hours in the country, the Guardian was told by a number of sources this week that the anti-government protests, far from having gone away, continue on an almost daily basis and have increased in numbers and volume with the arrival of Formula One. They also attest that the Bahraini state’s response has been arrests and a crackdown on dissent.
In the paddock the racing weekend continues as normal, business as usual for F1, part and parcel of Bahrain’s attempt to convince the world that it is business as normal for the state as well. Yet away from the track such relatively simple tasks as meeting with fellow journalists are conducted with requests for discretion. “They monitor phones, they use it extensively to work out details of how and who we contact to prevent us from working with other journalists and human rights groups,” says Mazen Mahdi, a Bahraini journalist for the German Press Agency. “If you tried to cover a protest live and see what the police are doing, if they saw you they would stop us and take us. It’s dangerous. Technically, just talking to me is breaking your visa status.”
Dangerous it seems for others, too, with repeated attempts by the Guardian to talk to family members of those who have been recently arrested meeting with failure through fear that being seen to speak out to the media would result in harsher sentences for those already detained. None in the end were willing to put their heads above the parapet. Claims of the use of tear gas and birdshot at protests is mentioned repeatedly and, amid the fear, there is a sense of outrage that F1 arrives to make money and entertain but remains at the same time devoid of the responsibilities that its very presence demands. Some people may be afraid but they also really want Formula One to be a force for change.
The issues in Bahrain were returned to the spotlight earlier this week when Amnesty International published a report condemning the continuing human rights violations and a lack of reform that was supposed to have occurred after the 2011 uprising.
Formula One has long-insisted this is none of its business. “We’re not here, or we don’t go anywhere, to judge how a country is run,” Bernie Ecclestone pointed out two years ago. The damning Amnesty report, however, was preceded by another announcement with considerably less fanfare. In it the group Americans for Democracy on Human Rights in Bahrain said that it had concluded an agreement with F1 that the sport would begin a policy of analysing the human rights impact it might have on host nations. “Formula One Group has committed to taking a number of further steps to strengthen its processes in relation to human rights,” it read. So now it seems, to some extent, it is Formula One’s business.
One of the chief mediators of that agreement was Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights who, having been imprisoned before (most recently in October for tweeting about a group of Bahrainis allegedly cooperating with Islamic State), was arrested again on 2 April, after highlighting the alleged mistreatment and torture of inmates at Jaw prison, the main jail on the east coast of the country.
The first concern of Rajab’s son, Adam, is for his father’s safety but his emotion and sense of outrage at the situation is palpable. “It is unfair to take someone to jail for an opinion,” he says. “In the United Kingdom would you be put in jail for tweeting? No.”
He does not believe this was an isolated event. “Many journalists come to cover F1 and maybe that’s why they arrested my father,” he says, adding that it was part of a wider crackdown that has occurred in areas where there are regular protests. “If you go to the villages, you will see them surrounded by police, any gathering of six or seven people chanting will be attacked with tear gas or Kevlar bullets or birdshot; the government are not allowing any protests to happen there.”
While there are human rights issues in other countries the sport visits, the activists claim that, unlike in China for example, it is Formula One’s very presence in Bahrain that makes the situation worse. Maryam al-Khawaja, the co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights who is living in Denmark having been sentenced to one year in prison in absentia for allegedly assaulting a police officer, describes the reforms since 2011 as both a smokescreen and a whitewash.
“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,” she says. “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.”
Her claim is vigorously disputed by the Bahraini government, with the minister of information affairs, Isa Abdul Rahman al-Hammadi, stating: “This is simply untrue and there is not a shred of evidence to support these claims. People have a right to peaceful protest in the country – that is something we respect and a right protected by the constitution. In 2014 alone, over 46 legally assembled protests took place.”
To be fair to the government, the claims did prove hard to verify. Mahdi, who has been arrested himself and was shot when covering the protests last year, concurs that the problems are exacerbated around the Formula One week but points out that both opposition and the state were complicit. “Protesters know there will be more journalists here so they are more active and the reaction to them is then more violent,” he says. “These are repressed people and their only window of attention is F1 so they are going to use it. Both sides try to use it. The government to say everything is normal and the protestors to say no, nothing is normal, it’s a media event for both sides.”
It is also a business event for Bahrain to promote the country and, of course, one for F1. Mahdi claims there is no way the grand prix can make money, another fact disputed by the government, with Hammadi stating that the race “supports employment of over 4,000 people, with an annual local economic impact of almost $300m”. But whatever the case, crucially it is definitely a big earner for F1, with Bahrain understood to have paid $40m in 2011 before that race was ultimately cancelled.
This is a big return and way beyond what Formula One Management would demand from, say, Silverstone or Spa. The vested interest in holding a race here for Bahrain and for F1 financially then is clear, but should not other interests also be addressed?
“If someone dies for a sport it’s a worthless sport, you bring sport in to improve things but when people die or even get injured, something is definitely wrong,” Mahdi says, and he believes the onus is on Formula One to do something about it. “In the business community there are ethics where you are supposed to give back, they are not giving back they are taking money and leaving. They need to speak out, words don’t cost anything.”
This, perhaps, is what might be hoped for as a result of FOM’s recent commitment to human rights. “They could do it unofficially, they could talk to the government, and tell them: ‘We know the crackdown happens, we don’t want that, we don’t want that to be linked to our name,’” says Mahdi. “Or they could do it in public, they could do it in stages: ‘We tried this, and this, before even reaching the level of saying: “We are not coming to Bahrain.”’ Just as with Jeremy Clarkson, the BBC made a judgment call – whatever money he was making for them it was not worth it.”
Indeed, in the face of the activists’ claims, Formula One Management was asked what form the commitment to human rights in Bahrain might take, but declined the opportunity.
Khawaja, in any case, believes the time for such debate has passed. “Some people argue that the F1 brings media attention with it but my response is: ‘At what cost?’ If it comes at the cost of people losing their lives, being tortured or going to prison for a long time it’s not worth the attention that it brings. It’s not worth it.”
She stands inevitably opposed by the state, with Hammadi saying: “Some within the country, and outside, will obviously take the opportunity of F1’s prominence to highlight their wider thoughts about Bahrain more generally,” he says. “Peaceful protests that occur within the law are provided for and a right protected by the constitution. When, however, on occasion, protest is used simply as a guise to commit acts of violence, police uphold the rule of law and address criminal acts in accordance with internationally recognised standards while ensuring that individual rights are protected at all times.”
And so it goes, with what the government refers to as internationally recognised standards described by Khawaja as “a systematic sense of impunity where police officers know they can get away with”.
Amid it all there is still a race, one that many Bahrainis at the track believe is a good thing for the country. This view, however improbably, is actually shared by Adam Rajab, who despite his father’s imprisonment wants F1 to stay in Bahrain but to step up and make a difference. “We want nothing to happen in Bahrain, we want a happy Bahrain but we don’t want our parents and families arrested for expressing their opinions.”
Put simply, he believes it is time Formula One stopped burying its head in this particular stretch of sand. “F1 should take a role in helping. We don’t want F1 cancelled in Bahrain but we want them to have a role in stopping the violations. They should talk to the Bahraini government and tell them that the violations are giving the sport a bad name all around the world.”
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