The stubborn determination of Formula One’s governing body to press ahead with the grand prix in Bahrain has delighted the country’s rulers, who portray it as a sign that the Gulf state is back to normal. It is anything but.
While levels of violence in Bahrain are down from their peak early last year, human rights abuses across the country remain widespread and popular protests are rising again, with thousands of Bahrainis taking to the streets in recent weeks. The response of the authorities has been swift and often brutal. Three teenagers were wounded, apparently by shotgun pellets, at a post-funeral rally last Friday; many others have been taken into detention.
This is consistent with the way the Bahraini authorities have responded to unrest over the past year. Among those on the receiving end of the crackdown have been members of the medical profession (attacked, detained and tortured for helping injured protesters) and academics (abused for failing to show sufficient fealty to the ruling family).
Worldwide condemnation did force the ruling al-Khalifa family to make concessions last year, notably the setting up of an International Commission of Inquiry to look into rights abuses and reform. This was a significant step and raised hopes. The commission’s report, released in late November, was damning and made strong recommendations to the Bahraini Government, including holding to account those responsible for past abuses and legal reforms to help to prevent their recurrence. But five months on, very little has changed.
Despite evidence that the Bahraini security forces have engaged in widespread torture, no senior figures have been brought to justice for these crimes. And while the guilty remain at large, thousands have been convicted and incarcerated, not for genuine criminal offences but for peaceful protest. Human Rights Watch has documented scores of cases in which long prison sentences have been handed down on the basis of unfair trials, with defendants denied legal representation and with confessions obtained through torture.
The most high-profile of these prisoners is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a leading human rights and political activist. Mr Khawaja has been on hunger strike since February 8 in protest at the life sentence he received in June and he is now close to death. The Bahraini Government has accused him of “plotting against the state”. However his trial was fundamentally unfair, with no evidence produced to suggest that he either advocated or used violence during the protests. The shocking reality is that he had been jailed for life for demanding political reform. The Bahrainis have also blocked proposals to allow Mr Khawaja to leave for medical treatment in Denmark, where he also has citizenship.
The sponsors and supporters of the grand prix cannot claim ignorance of what is happening in Bahrain. But while the decision to go ahead has outraged many ordinary Bahrainis, Western governments are arguably most deserving of criticism. Despite strong security and commercial ties with Bahrain, their overall policy has been weak and ineffective.
The British Government still declines to impose a complete ban on military equipment exports to Bahrain and it continues to talk up the prospects for Bahraini national dialogue and reconciliation. It is hard to see how either is remotely feasible while so many of Bahrain’s opposition are behind bars and with citizens imprisoned for the “crime” of wanting free elections.
It is time for the UK to recognise the limits of its quiet diplomacy with Bahrain and to step up the pressure on a government that continues to deny the basic rights of its citizens and seems fully prepared to let an activist die in detention for demanding democracy.
If the grand prix does nothing else for Bahrainis, it should at least keep their country’s plight in the headlines and embarrass governments, such as the UK, to do much more to uphold their human rights.
*David Mepham is UK Director of Human Rights Watch*