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Athletes targeted for exercising their rights as country prepares for the Formula One

(BCHR/IFEX) - 11 January 2012 - The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) condemns the continuing arrests and unfair trials against hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain for exercising their legitimate rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. This includes Bahraini race car champion Mohammed AlKhunaizi, who was sentenced to two years' imprisonment just a few days after the confirmation of the placement of Bahrain in the Formula One race calendar for 2012.

On 13 December 2011, the Criminal Court in Bahrain sentenced the 40-year-old car racing champion to two years' imprisonment on charges of participating in an illegal gathering and inciting hatred against the regime. These charges are ones which the military prosecutor and later the public prosecution have consistently brought against the majority, if not all, of the hundreds of pro-democracy detainees. This contradicts the essence of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

AlKhunaizi has been a professional race car driver since 1998, and is also the founder and team leader of the "Khunaizi Racing Team". He has won several local and international tournaments and has broken records in the Middle East. He also runs a special garage for race car maintenance, and is one of founders of the Bahrain Automobile Club. Furthermore, he is the father of two children.

AlKhunaizi was arrested on Friday 16 September 2011 after participating in the funeral of martyr Sayed Jawad Ahmed Hashim, who died due to excessive tear gas inhalation. Security forces attacked mourners at Sitra, covering the area with tear gas. AlKhunaizi had taken refuge on the roof of a nearby building after security forces attacked and chased the crowds. Some of the forces went to the roof of the building where he was taking refuge and assaulted him. They punched him in the face and rolled him down the stairs. This resulted in several bruises on his face and body which remained visible even three weeks after the incident. The injuries were documented in a medical report. AlKhunaizi was arrested and taken to the police station of the Central Governorate while still bleeding. He was then released at a later time on Friday night with an order to check back at the public prosecutor on Sunday. On 18 September 2011, when he went to see the public prosecutor, he was re-arrested and accused of participating in an illegal gathering, assaulting security officers and inciting hatred towards the regime. On 13 December 2011, he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment.

AlKhunaizi was transferred to Jaw central prison after his sentencing, which is a place known for its poor conditions. His case is presently before the Court of Appeal.

The verdict in AlKhunaizi's case came at the same time as the confirmation of Bahrain's placement on the 2012 Formula One calendar, following the cancellation of the race in 2011 as a result of political unrest and severe violations of human rights. The Formula One race has been confirmed for 2012 despite the fact that the same violations are still under way in Bahrain, including arrests, torture and unfair trials due to the exercise of legitimate rights. Also, despite confirmed reports by independent human rights organizations as well as the Commission appointed by the King regarding the arbitrariness of the provisions given to the demonstrators who have exercised their legitimate rights, dozens are still in prison, including at least eight local and international Bahraini athletes.

The arrest and detention of race car champion AlKhunaizi confirms the continuous targeting of pro-democracy figures in the sports sector in Bahrain. In addition, violations are still taking place in the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) which is the host of the Formula One race in Bahrain. Many of the 23 staff members of BIC who had been beaten, arrested from their offices and detained last March are now either still suspended from work or have already received dismissal letters. The Director of Mechanical works at the BIC, Mr. Kamel AlTaan, is one of these staff members who was subjected to arrest and torture, and he received his dismissal letter a few days ago. At the same time, those who were behind these violations have never been held accountable.

[Following the publication of this report, BIC announced the reinstatement of its previously dismissed workers. However, the information has yet to be confirmed to BCHR.]

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Click here to read the full report, including a list of currently detained athletes

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