Formula One Forges Ahead In Bahrain


Unless you’re a racing enthusiast, you might have missed the news last week that the Formula 1 event scheduled to take place in Bahrain in March this year will be raced instead in October. 

The event was deferred in the aftermath of the anti-government protests and violence that engulfed the capital from February onward. In May, before the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) honchos met to discuss the rescheduling of the event, Human Rights Watch addressed an open letter to them exhorting them to take into account the human rights situation in Bahrain:

"We believe your decision should be informed by, among other things, the severe human rights crisis in Bahrain today, one that has worsened considerably since the cancellation decision in February. We seriously question whether a successful Formula One event can be staged in an environment characterised by an unrelenting official campaign of punitive retribution against many who participated in or otherwise supported the pro-democracy protests, which authorities from the prime minister on down have retrospectively characterized, with zero evidence, as a treasonous coup inspired by Iran."

FIA didn’t listen and the event will take place in October. Maybe. Formula 1 teams have written to FIA to express their concerns about the race being held at all and Bernie Ecclestone, who represents F1 commercial rights holders, supports them. US advocacy organisation Avaaz has also spearheaded an online campaign to pressure F1 and its sponsors to withdraw from the event altogether. 

Even so, the Formula 1 website broadcasts a very optimistic announcement about the reinstatement of the event:

"Meetings were conducted with the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Bahrain Motor Federation and Bahrain International Circuit, as well as other national and international organisations including Mr. Tariq Al Saffar at the National Institute of Human Rights. It should be noted that the recent announcement by the King of Bahrain has established a political dialogue and reconciliation process.

"After considering all the factors and taking into consideration all stakeholders’ concerns, the WMSC unanimously agreed to reinstate the Bahrain Grand Prix in the 2011 FIA Formula One World Championship."

Zayed R. Alzayani, Chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit told the FIA:

"As a country we have faced a difficult time, but stability has returned; with businesses operating close to normal, the State of National Safety lifted and countries removing travel restrictions.

"Collectively, we are in the process of addressing issues of national and international concern, and learning lessons from the recent past. By the time the Grand Prix arrives we will be able to remind the world about Bahrain at its best."

The 47 doctors and nurses currently facing trial before a military court for colluding with anti-government protesters would surely disagree with this assessment. New Matilda has been following this trial closely. We thank our correspondent, a Bahraini doctor who cannot be named for security reasons, for bringing us information about the circumstances leading up to this trial.

The doctor wrote in an email yesterday, "Yes I am worried about exposing my identity as we in Bahrain are still under threat in spite of all that is said in the media about lifting the military rule. If that was not true, then why are protesters and detainee still trialed in military court and why are people’s houses still raided at night and students taken from their schools and colleges. Why are there check points in the roads and why are ambulances always escorted by special security police!"

When the demonstrations began in Manama in February and government forces opened fire on protesters, many injured people wound up in emergency rooms. The doctors and nurses who treated them, especially at Salmaniya hospital, were arrested.

The Shiite doctors and nurses who were targetted were accused by authorities of colluding with their co-religionists, as Ali Khalil reports for AFP. They were charged with a range of offences, from throwing blood on protesters to make their injuries look worse to coordinating protests. Khalil spoke to women medics who signed false confessions after being threatened with rape by interrogators.

Medics are not the only ones alleging torture. The correspondent for France 24, Nazeeha Saeed, was tortured after covering the pro-democracy protests, and Reporters without Borders issued the following statement on the matter:

"Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the way this journalist was mistreated and urges the authorities to carry out an independent and transparent investigation that sheds all possible light on this shocking and disgraceful episode. Those responsible should be charged and tried, as should those in the chain of command who were involved.

"This young woman’s case gives a glimpse of the treatment of journalists by security forces in Bahrain. The list of detained reporters, photographers and cyber-dissidents keeps on getting longer amid complete indifference on the part of the international community."

There’s a stark contrast between the optimistic statements of FIA and the Bahrian race organisers and such reports. The day after the Formula 1 announcement, NM’s correspondent wrote:

"Day after day I think that there will be an end to all these lies and accusations, but unfortunately nothing measurable happens.

"They have ended the emergency law period on paper, [but]the forces on the ground are more than ever. It is just a matter of change of the colour of the uniform, from military to riot police with senseless violence. There is still fear, too much of it and along with it is a state sponsored campaign of hatred and revenge.

"This is the most difficult time of my life so far. I guess this was timed for the Grand Prix bid which they got yesterday. What I cannot bear is the level of disregard to basic morals and human ethics. Now what on earth did we do to deserve all this?"

A doctor from Médécins Sans Frontières has been detained in Bahrain and the organisation has issued strong statements in condemnation of the loss of neutrality of the country’s medical facilities. To date, these have had little impact.

Some of the medics on trial are facing death sentences. They insist that they were merely doing their jobs. Our medical correspondent, whose colleagues are on trial, poses despairing questions: "Can there be an international court that can refute such sentences? Are doctors not immune because of their Hippocratic oath?"

The trial continues on 13 June.

Update: In response to the objections lodged by Formula One teams, FIA announced the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix late on 9 June. Read more about the decision here

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.