Bahrain: F1 race overshadowed by rights abuses

Bahrain: F1 race overshadowed by rights abuses
As Bahrain prepares to host F1 Grand Prix, a report by Amnesty International paints a chilling picture of the state of human rights in the Gulf state.
5 min read
16 April, 2015
Bahraini protestors carry a poster saying "Stop the Formula of Blood" [Anadolu / Getty]

Britain's Lewis Hamilton sped to victory in this weekend's Formula 1 Grand Prix in Manama. But outside the stadium, the event was overshadowed by an Amnesty report on "chilling" human rights abuses that have continued since the aborted Arab Spring-style uprising that rocked the Gulf kingdom in 2011.

'Rampant abuses' against peaceful activists and government critics continue to take place in Bahrain four years after the uprisings that rocked the Gulf kingdom in 2011, London based global rights group Amnesty International reported Thursday.

In a 77-page report, Behind the Rhetoric: Human rights abuses in Bahrain continue unabated, the rights group documents widespread use of torture, arbitrary detentions, and excessive force by security forces against peaceful opposition activists.

Despite a series of legal and institutional reforms, members of the security forces continue to enjoy virtual impunity, says the report.

It is four years since hundreds of protestors gathered around Pearl Roundabout in the Bahraini capital Manama to call for democratic reform, a constitutional monarchy and freedom of expression.

The main protest movement was later crushed thanks to an intervention by Saudi-led forces, martial law and mass arrests.

Despite this, a low-level insurgency has continued ever since, with security services using tear gas and birdshot, followed by mass arrests in mostly Shia villages around the capital Manama.

During one protest, a 17-year-old who spoke to Amnesty International said he was struck on the right side of his face by a tear gas canister, breaking his jawbone. Then he was chased by security forces. He said the officer who arrested him placed his foot on his head and said: "I will kill you today".

The officers who then took him to hospital mocked him and left him screaming with pain for around half an hour before he fell unconscious. He was later released without charge only to be re-arrested during a raid by police.

Other protestors described being beaten, tortured and threatened whilst in detention. One was hit with the claw part of a hammer, while another was anally raped with a hosepipe.

I may spend the next ten years of my life in jail

Nabeel Rajab

The government's clampdown on opposition goes well beyond street protests. Human rights defenders and opposition political parties have been targeted in an ongoing campaign of arrests. Others have been deported and had their nationalities revoked.

On 2 April, security forces surrounded the house of Nabeel Rajab, a leading human rights activist and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and arrested him. Rajab had written an opinion piece for the Huffington Post, accusing the Bahraini authorities of large scale abuse of prisoners. He was charged with "insulting a statutory body", as well as "spreading rumors during wartime" - a charge relating to Tweets he published about civilian deaths in Yemen. He could face more than 10 years in prison.

On Tuesday, Rajab wrote an open letter to President Obama, saying his actions could only be counted as crimes in a nation that stifles free expression and criminalizes open assembly. "I have documented my government's use of torture. I have reported on civilian casualties in Yemen. I have held a different opinion than that of a king. In retaliation, I may spend the next ten years of my life in jail," he wrote from his prison cell.

Bahrain allies castigated

International pressure following the crackdown at Pearl Roundabout prompted the Bahraini government to set up an independent investigation into the abuses.

King Hamad unconditionally accepted the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which recommended a series of reforms to prevent future abuses and hold security forcs to account. But hopes that the government would implement its findings have "evaporated," according to Amnesty.

"There have been some legal reforms to address some recommendations in the BICI report," Said Haddadi, Amnesty International's researcher on Bahrain, told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "But at the same time the authorities have introduced new legislation that empties the new human rights institutions of any meaning and adds to repressive arsenal of legislation that the authorities already have."

Amnesty says Bahrain's Western supporters have generally refrained from criticising the government, taking the government's claims of reform at face value.

Britain, a key ally that in late 2014 announced plans to establish a new military base on the island, recently praised Bahrain for taking "incremental steps to implement its human rights and political reform agenda." The report admitted that "there continued to be serious concerns related to political and civil rights."

But despite extensive government reports detailing human rights abuses in Bahrain, the kingdom does not feature on the British government's list of "countries of concern" over human rights abuses - a status that could make it hard for British companies to sell weapons to the Kingdom.

The European Union has quietly supported institutional reforms in Bahrain, without publicly criticising the government over its ongoing abuses. In December 2014, the Ombudsman of the Ministry of the Interior received an EU award for his work to promote human rights.

In recent weeks, activists in Bahrain have demonstrated against the Grand Prix, saying it gives legitimacy to the Bahraini government. A Twitter campaign under the Arabic hashtag "Stop the Formula of Blood" has gone viral.

Jawad Fairouz, an exiled Bahraini human rights activist who has lived in London since the authorities revoked his citizenship in 2012, welcomed the Amnesty report. But he said the international community should put more diplomatic and legal pressure on the Bahraini authorities to implement genuine reforms.

"Bahrain's allies, particularly the USA and the UK, should take strong political positions. For example, states could impose travel bans on individuals within the regime who have been accused of abuses," he told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "When President Obama meets the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at Camp David, he should take the opportunity to put pressure on the Bahraini government to carry out genuine reform."

Bahrain says that it takes seriously all allegations of abuse and is pressing ahead with reforms but that it has a duty to also protect national security and the wider interests of the Arab Gulf states.