Gentlemen, stop your engines! That’s what Bahraini human rights activists are saying about the Bahrain Grand Prix, one of the most popular events on Formula One’s calendar. The race was canceled in 2011 because of a popular uprising against the monarchy. The activists want this year’s race canceled, too, or at least boycotted.
Since last February, when the Arab Spring hit this small Gulf nation and important U.S. ally, at least 60 people have been killed and hundreds wounded. The violence led to the cancellation of last year’s event in March. A month later the Bahrain International Circuit fired twenty-nine employees who were suspected of sympathizing with the protesters. Some employees said they were beaten and tortured by Bahraini police. 1,600 government workers were also dismissed without cause. Protests still happen regularly in Manama and a major demonstration is scheduled for Friday.
Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which has called for the boycott, told LatitudeNews that “Formula One should not come to Bahrain. Bahrain had no respect for the rights of Formula One staff here [and for the rights of Bahrainis]. If they come, it will send the wrong message to the people of this country.”
Rajab added that the race would help the image of the Bahraini government by showing that things were back to normal, which he says is not the case. “We are asking Formula One not to help the government. Don’t help them escape from punishment.”
King Hamad and the Bahraini government claim that hosting the Grand Prix will allow them to show off liberalizing reforms to thousands of Western visitors and journalists (in 2010, over 100,000 people attended the race). After the uprising, Bahrain commissioned a report on potential reforms from Cherif Bassiouni, an internationally recognized human rights expert, and says it is following them. But Bassiouini recently said the pace of change has been too slow, calling the government’s investigations into its prior misdeeds a “whitewash.” King Hamad has also hired John Timoney, the former police chief of Miami and Philadelphia, and John Yates, former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, to advise Bahrain’s heavy-handed police. Timoney, in particular, seems like a strange choice for a country that says it is liberalizing. He has been strongly criticized in the past for his approach to dispersing protestors at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philly and at the Free Trade of the Americas summit in Miami in 2003.
Bernie Ecclestone, the chairman of Formula One, says this year’s event, scheduled for April 22nd, will go ahead as planned. And why not? The BIC has already paid F1 a $40 million dollar fee for being allowed to host the race.