Formula 1 accused of sending 'appalling message' over Bahrain Grand Prix

Bahrain Grand Prix
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel has won the past two Bahrain Grand Prix

Formula 1 has been accused by human rights groups of sending "an appalling message" over abuses allegedly related to the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Coming just over three weeks before this year's race in Manama, the criticism concerns the jailing of activist Najah Yusuf.

Last month, 17 campaign organisations wrote to F1 management urging them to put pressure on Bahrain.

They said she was jailed over criticism of the race, which authorities deny.

Protest groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (Bird), claimed that Yusuf had been given a three-year sentence because she protested against the 2017 race.

However, in correspondence seen by the BBC, F1's general counsel Sacha Woodward-Hill replied that Bahrain's authorities had assured her that Yusuf's conviction was not related to the grand prix, and that people were free to criticise the event.

Last year F1 admitted "concern" that the court judgement in Yusuf's case referred to negative comments she made about the race on social media.

Bird's head of advocacy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, accused F1 of "sending an appalling message that its supposed commitment to human rights in reality means nothing".

He said: "Its decision to continually rely on false assurances by the Bahraini government is extremely disappointing. F1's response amounts to complicity in covering up for Bahrain."

British Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven, who is to meet Formula 1 management next week to discuss Yusuf's case, said he "will be making it clear in the strongest possible terms that the leadership of F1 have personally not done enough in the case of Najah Yusuf and human rights abuses generally by the Bahraini authorities stemming from the holding of Bahrain Grand Prix".

He added: "F1 are happy to be a fig leaf for the Bahraini authorities who use the event of the grand prix to portray a picture to the world that hides the systematic human rights abuses of those who wish to stand up and have true freedom of expression.

"If the leaders of Formula 1 won't deal with Human Rights abuses that are directly linked to their sporting events, then maybe it's time to take the case direct to the sponsors, teams and individual drivers."

The Bahrain authorities said that Yusuf's conviction was unrelated to the grand prix.

"Najah Yusuf's defence did not claim during her trial that her right to free speech had been infringed. Peaceful protests of any kind are protected by Bahrain's constitution and do not constitute a crime," the statement said.

Woodward-Hill, in a letter to Bird, said: "The Kingdom of Bahrain has clearly stated that the charges and convictions of Ms Yusuf have 'absolutely no relation to the F1 race' and have provided a detailed response in relation to concerns around the case.

"F1 is committed to respecting internationally-recognised human rights and we take all responsibilities seriously."

Staged for the first time in 2004, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been one of the most controversial races on the F1 calendar.

It was cancelled in 2011 after pro-democracy protests were crushed. At least 35 people were killed; protesters claimed the death toll was far higher.

In 2013 a group of British MPs called on then-F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to cancel the race again amid further unrest in Bahrain. However, recent races there have passed off without incident.

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