Bahrain’s grand prix problem

Bahrain’s top news during the past 48 hours say a lot about the troubled country: glitzy races are welcome; experts on torture are not.

Bahraini officials yesterday claimed that UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, had cancelled his upcoming visit “indefinitely”. Funnily enough, the special rapporteur has denied this claim, saying that the government has actually blocked his visit, which was set to take place next month. The Special Rapporteur said in a release today that officials claimed that his trip could potentially endanger the success of the country’s National Dialogue, which began earlier this year.

Demotix | shehabi

Mendez said that the decision “does not enhance transparency with regard to the situation in the country nor demonstrate a commitment to redress impunity regarding any violations. Rather the authorities seem to view my visit as an obstacle rather than a positive factor to the reform process.”

The tiny gulf kingdom has faced unrest since the start of popular protests on 14 February 2011, which have now left 88 dead, according to Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). 

The US State Department recently released a report evaluating human rights globally, and outlined Bahrain’s troubles with keeping up with its commitments to human rights. The report said that the country’s government haslimited freedom of speech and press through active prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws; firing or attacking civilian and professional journalists; and proposing legislation to limit speech in print and social media.”

Bahrain says that reforms are underway, but their effect remains to be seen: according to Human Rights Watch, Bahrain’s authorities “have failed to investigate and prosecute high-level officials responsible for serious human rights violations.” To top it all off, the group also reports that there have been “more than 300 formal allegations of torture and ill-treatment.”

Even though there’s no room for UN experts in Bahrain, it looks like the doors are wide open for another Bahrain Grand Prix. This Monday, Formula 1 head Bernie Ecclestone said he would be pleased to extend the country’s contract for another five years.

“I feel they do a super job and don’t see any problems”, Ecclestone told the BBC.

Let’s recap last weekend’s race: BCHR has reported a total of 96 arrests in the lead up to the race — with 16 protesters arrested the day of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Protests took place in 20 of the troubled country’s villages, with clashes between protesters and security forces. An ITV news crew was forced to leave Bahrain right before the race, after reporting on protests — even though they had the appropriate accreditation. During last year’s race, three Channel 4 journalists were arrested and deported while covering a protest, but officials said that they were cast out for covering protests without media accreditation. I wonder what the excuse was this year?

Last year’s race drew crowds of protesters, who were met with brutal show of tear gas and bird shot pellets from security forces. One man, Salah Abbas Habib, was killed during protests. Bahrain did charge a police officer with murdering Habib, but his case is sadly the exception. In 2011, the race was canceled after 35 people were killed during the country’s crackdown on popular protests at Manama’s now-demolished Pearl Roundabout.  Even though this year’s race went forward, every year this seems to come with a worrying cost.

Sounds like a problem to me.