Formula One chiefs have admitted for the first time that they are “concerned” that an activist who protested against the Bahrain Grand Prix on Facebook was jailed for three years by the country’s authorities.
F1 has traditionally been reluctant to intervene on politics and human rights cases but has made a rare exception in the case of Najah Ahmed Yusuf, who claims she was beaten, sexually abused and imprisoned following a series of posts in April 2017 that were critical of the race and the regime.
In the court judgment against her it was noted that she had written “No to Formula races on occupied Bahraini land” and claimed that F1 coming to her country was “nothing more than a way for the [ruling] al-Khalifa family to whitewash their criminal record and gross human rights violations”. She also called for a “Freedom for the Formula Detainees” march to put the spotlight on protestors jailed for criticising the Bahrain Grand Prix.
A week later Yusef was arrested. During her interrogation she claims she was beaten with shoes, groped and sexually assaulted. She also alleges that she was repeatedly asked: “How many times have boys ridden you?” before her questioner threatened to “ride” her several times. There was no lawyer present and Yusef says she was subsequently coerced into signing a pre-prepared confession which led to her being jailed in June.
Human rights groups say they first alerted F1 to Yusuf’s plight in March. However they insist it was only after a letter from the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven last week – followed up by another one from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) – that F1 chiefs acknowledged their concerns about the Bahraini court’s judgment against Ms Yusuf.
“We are concerned by the citation in the court judgment of Ms Yusuf’s comment opposing the staging of the 2017 Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix,” Sacha Woodward Hill, general counsel for F1, told Scriven and Bird. “And we have raised our concerns with our counterparts in Bahrain, as part of our ongoing enquiries.
“Formula One is committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally. As part of our commitment we expect that commentators who may wish to use the occasion of a Formula One grand prix event to express opinions peacefully will be able to do so without punitive action, before, during or after the event.”
The Bahrain Grand Prix has had a troubled past, with the race being cancelled in 2011 after human rights protests in the country while in 2012 the race went ahead despite tens of thousands of anti-government protesters flooding a major highway to demand it was cancelled. It remains a flashpoint in the country.
During 2017 Formula One told human rights groups that “journalists and other commentators who wish to use the occasion of the [Bahrain] Grand Prix event to express their opinions peacefully will be able to do so without reprisal.”
However, human rights groups say that this standard was not applied in the case of Yusef. They also say her ill-treatment is continuing in jail and that she was badly beaten in September as a reprisal for her case being raised in the British parliament. Since then she has also not been able to see her family.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of Bird, told the Guardian: “Formula One is in a position of power; failure to act means they are complicit to Najah’s suffering. Formula One must leverage the full weight of their authority to ensure their abusive business partner releases Najah immediately and unconditionally. If that requires cancelling the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2019, then so be it.”
However the Bahrain government maintains Yusuf was jailed for “promoting and encouraging people to overthrow the political and social systems” between 2010 and 2017. And Fahad al-Binali, the first secretary at Bahrain’s ministry of foreign affairs, told the Guardian his country took allegations about Yusef’s case and her ill-treatment seriously.
“Najah Ahmed Yusuf’s complaint was submitted to the [Bahrain] independent ombudsman,” he said. “After investigating the complaint of alleged mistreatment, the case was referred to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).
“Najah Ahmed Yusuf’s conviction is a matter for Bahrain’s courts. All individuals in the Kingdom are guaranteed fair and equal treatment within the criminal justice system, with the right to legal representation at every stage and the opportunity to appeal court rulings through multiple channels.
“In regard to peaceful protest, the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to peaceful assembly are protected by Bahrain’s constitution. The government continues to uphold this right robustly and no one is detained for expressing their political views.”