Human rights groups urge F1 to act over jailed Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf

Small-scale protests against the Bahrain Grand Prix are expected across the country this weekend, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), with the mass demonstrations that characterised the 2011 and 2012 meetings not likely to be repeated due to the climate of fear and crackdowns that now precede Formula One races in Bahrain.

The institute was one of 15 human rights groups that sent a letter to the FIA president, Jean Todt, and F1 management on Wednesday calling on it to act in the case of the Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf, who has been imprisoned since last year after posting criticism of the grand prix and the regime on Facebook.

In 2011 the race was cancelled after mass protests while in 2012 it went ahead despite large-scale opposition. However, a Bird spokesperson believed the fear of imprisonment means that will not be the case on this occasion.

On Thursday Amnesty International also highlighted the fate of another jailed activist in Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab, who was arrested in 2015. That year his son, Adam, told the Guardian how the crackdowns occurred around race weekends. “If you go to the villages you will see them surrounded by police,” he said. “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.”

Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, Samah Hadid, said: “Beneath the glamour of F1, there is a far more sinister side to Bahrain, revealing the country as a deeply repressive state where anyone critical of the government can be jailed merely for posting a tweet.”

Rajab was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for tweeting about the alleged mistreatment and torture of inmates at Jaw prison. Amnesty added the regime had “embarked on a systematic campaign to eliminate organised political opposition”.

On Wednesday the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven called on F1 to make good on its promise to hold an investigation into Yusuf’s case by visiting her in prison. F1 stated it was not going to do so but that it would continue to take action privately, noting that it believed it would be “unhelpful to comment further publicly”.

The Bahrain government maintains Yusuf was jailed for “promoting and encouraging people to overthrow the political and social systems” and has said “the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to peaceful assembly are protected by Bahrain’s constitution”.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at Bird, which is based in London, insisted that was not enough. “In our experience the private channel alone has never brought any substantial results,” he said. “The Bahraini government only responds to public pressure, therefore F1 must use its full leverage to secure Najah’s release, including visiting her in Isa Town prison.”

At the Sakhir circuit itself on Thursday, Lewis Hamilton expressed his concerns about racism in sport. The five-times world champion has already been scathing about the abuse some England football players were subjected to when playing Montenegro at the start of the week, posting after the match: “What you faced with the chants was despicable. Completely unacceptable no room for this behaviour in any sport.”

Hamilton, who is second to his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in the world championship after the Finn won the opening round in Australia, addressed his fears that it is a problem that showed no signs of diminishing. “It’s crazy to think that at this time in the world it’s still very, very prominent,” he said. “It’s really there, all around the world.

“Racism is still an issue, which is sad to see. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be migrating much over the next years. It’s great to see people standing by in support. But it doesn’t look like it’s something that’s going to particularly change for a long time.”

The 34-year-old, who is attempting to win his sixth world championship this season and is F1’s first and only black driver, believed the issue had to be taken more seriously. “People just need to stand up for it more,” he said. “I remember being at school and when I was younger and you kind of get a slap on the hand for it and things are kind of let slide. I don’t think that should happen anywhere. Action should be taken and people should be a lot stricter with it.”


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