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(Beirut) – The decision to go ahead with the Grand Prix on April 22, 2012, gives Bahrain’s rulers the opportunity they are seeking to obscure the seriousness of the country’s human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. The decision was announced on April 13 by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and the Formula One Teams Association. As part of a major public relations campaign to clean up Bahrain’s image following the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011, the Bahraini authorities have been lobbying to have the Bahrain Grand Prix reinstated in 2012. The event was cancelled in 2011 because of political unrest. Not only is the event expected to generate significant income, but it is also being used by the Bahraini authorities to support their claim that the political and human rights crisis in the country is over.

“Formula One promoters say their decision to race in Bahrain should not be derailed by political considerations, but the ruling family will attempt to portray today's decision as a political statement of support for its repressive policies,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “The FIA has played into the government’s narrative to gloss over Bahrain’s continuing human rights crisis.”

Anti-government protests have been on the rise in recent weeks, and cancellation of the F1 event has become a major demand of demonstrators. Human rights activists in Bahrain have reported frequent incidents in recent weeks of security forces beating suspected protesters, as well as injuries and possibly deaths from excessive or improper use of teargas.

Bahrain’s rulers have not fully carried out the key recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a body of international rights experts who examined the extensive and serious human rights violations in connection with massive and largely peaceful pro-democracy protests in February-March 2011. The government has not conducted any known criminal investigations into the roles of senior officials alleged to be implicated in torture and unlawful killings. The authorities have also ignored the recommendation to quash the military court verdicts against protest leaders whose sole offenses involved free expression and peaceful assembly. Many of the convictions were based solely on confessions that the detainees claimed in court had been coerced.

One of those protest leaders serving a life prison sentence for his role in leading peaceful protests is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, now in the third month of a hunger strike, begun on February 8, demanding freedom for himself and other unjustly convicted opposition activists.

“Normal today in Bahrain means people like Abdulhadi al-Khawaja are still in prison more than a year after being arrested, serving long sentences, and no effort to hold accountable the officials responsible for last year’s killings and torture,” Porteous said. “The Bahraini government will spin today's announcement as acceptance of this normality.”

Bahrain sharply restricts the entry of international rights groups. Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), for instance, announced on April 12 that its expatriate staff had been denied entry to the country and that the Health Ministry had denied the humanitarian organization permission to operate any clinics in the country. The organization says that protesters injured in clashes with security forces go without needed treatment out of fear that they will be arrested and mistreated if they go to a government facility.

Human Rights Watch urged the Formula One promoters to apply the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, issued in 2011. Among other things, the guidelines urge enterprises to avoid contributing to adverse human rights impacts, and when they do, address these, and at all times to carry out appropriate human rights due diligence of their work.

“There is a human rights crisis in Bahrain and its rulers should be pressed to take immediate steps to end it including releasing political prisoners like al-Khawaja, allowing in groups like MSF, and fully carrying out the independent commission’s recommendations,” Porteous said. “The FIA, having given a green light for the Grand Prix to be exploited for human rights harm, needs to take all the steps it can to redress the damage it has caused and make sure the Bahraini authorities implement the measures that are needed.”

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