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ADHRB disappointed by Formula One's weak response to NGO concerns for imprisoned activist

A group of anti-government protesters demand the cancellation of Formula 1 races being held in Manama, Bahrain, 19 April 2015
A group of anti-government protesters demand the cancellation of Formula 1 races being held in Manama, Bahrain, 19 April 2015

Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on adhrb.org on 12 March 2019.

On 4 March 2019, Formula One (F1) responded to a letter sent by Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and sixteen other NGOs on 6 February 2019 raising serious concerns surrounding allegations of the arbitrary detention and torture of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf following her social media activity criticizing the 2017 Grand Prix in Bahrain. The letter urged F1 to call for the release of Yusuf in line with its commitment to human rights. However, Formula One's response to this call was ultimately lackluster, citing the Bahraini government's reassurance that Yusuf's charges were unrelated to the Grand Prix or free expression. ADHRB is seriously concerned with Formula One's decision to continue to participate in the whitewashing of human rights abuses through sport in Bahrain, and is deeply disappointed in its failure to critically engage on human rights violations in Najah Yusuf's case.

The letter sent to Formula One on 6 February detailed serious allegations of abuse faced by Yusuf at the hands of officers from Bahrain's National Security Agency (NSA) in April 2017, and her subsequent unfair trial. Despite the assurances the Bahraini government provided Formula One that Yusuf's case was not based on her criticisms of the Grand Prix, the public prosecution's case against her was substantially founded on her social media posts criticizing Formula One, in which Yusuf cited the event as the Bahraini government's means of whitewashing ongoing human rights violations, as well as a coerced confession. Evidence from the public prosecution further referred to Yusuf's calls for a solidarity march with protestors arrested during previous races - which have seen violent crackdowns by security forces on peaceful protestors - and even the court judgement noted her opposition to Formula One in the conviction. On 25 June 2018, Yusuf was handed a three-year prison sentence and in prison she has been subjected to abuse by prison authorities.

Formula One has previously publicized concern for Yusuf's imprisonment in regards to her peaceful criticisms surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix, further emphasizing its commitment to upholding internationally-recognized human rights standards during its international events. However, Formula One's recent response largely defaults to the narrative provided by the Government of Bahrain, stating that charges brought against Yusuf were unrelated to her peaceful criticisms, despite the fact that much of the evidence provided by the public prosecution in court against Yusuf calls the claim into question. F1 further cited confirmation from the Bahraini government that critics would not are free to exercise the right to free expression by peacefully criticizing the Grand Prix, again despite evidence that Yusuf's prosecution heavily cited her criticisms of Formula One. Formula One's response ultimately lacks a critical observance of human rights abuses committed around the race.

"Formula One's response to the ongoing abuse of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf is appalling," says ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. "Though the organization has previously expressed its concern for her case, the fact that it now takes its assurances from the Bahraini government, the very same government which targeted Yusuf in the first place, is deeply concerning. Formula One's failure to take a strong stance on Najah Yusuf's case, in addition to its persistence in holding its Grand Prix in Bahrain despite ongoing human rights abuses surrounding the event, signals that the organization is willing to absolve itself of its larger commitment to human rights and allow Bahrain to continue to use international sporting endeavors to whitewash the kingdom's abysmal human rights record."

ADHRB remains deeply concerned by Formula One's approach to addressing human rights violations in Bahrain, specifically surrounding its Formula One Grand Prix race and its ultimate failure to adequately address Najah Yusuf's case despite clear evidence that she was targeted for her criticism of the race. We strongly condemn Formula One's willingness to accept the Bahraini government's assurances to protect freedom of expression, despite a track record of government suppression of criticism around the event, and ADHRB further condemns F1's complicity in whitewashing ongoing human rights violations in the kingdom. We call on Formula One to take a stronger stance against human rights abuses in Bahrain and reiterate the call for Najah Yusuf's release.

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