Bahrainis still suffer with human rights abuse, torture and political imprisonment, says Sara Yasin. Despite its supporters’ “astonishment”, it’s no wonder that the world was “hostile” to its Grand Prix
This article was originally published in The Telegraph.
In the pages of The Daily Telegraph on Monday, John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police now working in Bahrain advising the government on police reform, claimed that “Bahrainis are bewildered by the world hostility”, and by headlines that suggested a serious safety risk to Formula One teams.
Last weekend, all eyes were on Bahrain, and not for the reason the government had hoped. Coverage of Sebastian Vettel’s victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix was drowned out by a mess of stun grenades, burning tyres, tear gas and Molotov cocktails. Bahrain’s ongoing unrest pushed human rights organisations to call for the race to be cancelled.
Yates says the F1 teams’ safety was never at risk – but in the lead up to the race he claimed that live rounds could be used to make ensure their cars could speed around the Sakhir track. Does Yates seriously expect the world’s press to ignore incidents that included a Force India team mechanic narrowly avoiding being hit by petrol bombs during a clash between protesters and police?
F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and Bahraini officials insisted that the show must go on, saying that sport has nothing to do with politics. Sports journalists were left to cover the violent crackdown on protesters and death of one protester – Salah Abbas Habib – on Saturday. His death and the death earlier in the month of another protester are a testament to the failure of reforms in the country.
Those who defend Bahrain’s government claim it is improving – acting to protect human rights, regulate policing and create more transparency. But as we saw this weekend, the situation on the ground is deteriorating. The country has been plagued by protests, peaceful and violent. The protesters do not believe reform is coming.
The Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry (BICI) was created by King Hamad to investigate human rights violations in the months following the start of unrest on 14 February last year. The Commission’s report, released on 23 November, was met with scepticism from activists and members of civil society. I went to Bahrain for the report’s launch, hoping it would prove more than an elaborate PR exercise. Although government officials are quick to point to the number of committees established and the long list of international experts enlisted in helping the regime move past the problems of last year, there has been no real progress. Not a single senior figure has been held to account.
Bahrain should be congratulated for recognising the appalling human rights violations committed during last year’s crackdown and for proposing reforms but it now needs to make good on those proposals. Words are yet to be put into actions.
Promises of reform carry little weight when the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) reports that approximately 600 political prisoners have yet to be freed, despite the commission’s call for their release.
Maryam Alkhawaja, head of the Foreign Relations Office at BCHR, has warned that without the international community holding Bahrain accountable for human rights violations, the country will see “the same kind of excessive force, systematic torture, and daily human rights violations” documented by the organisation during the past year. Alkhawaja added that if international bodies do take action, activists “might be lucky enough to see a different approach for Bahrain”.
Bahrain has been given the space and time to take implementation seriously, and the international community must place pressure on the government to reform where it counts. This means that we shouldn’t be doing business with the regime, and we most certainly should not be selling them arms or inviting them to lunch.
Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship