Bahrain Grand Prix: UK MPs urge Formula 1 bosses to act over 'sportswashing'

A woman and her child in front of anti-Formula One graffiti in the village of Barbar, Bahrain
This graffiti protest in the village of Barbar reads "Boycott F1 in Bahrain, you will race on the blood of martyrs"

A cross-party group of 30 UK parliamentarians has called on Formula 1 to "leverage Bahrain into respecting human rights".

The group sent a letter on Wednesday, amid concerns of rights violations linked to Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix.

The letter urges F1 bosses to "implement their human rights policy".

"We write to express concern that the Bahrain Grand Prix is exploited by Bahrain's government to 'sportswash' their human rights record," it adds.

Bahrain has been on the F1 calendar since 2004 but the race was cancelled in 2011 following a series of anti-government protests.

Layla Moran MP, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson, sent the letter on behalf of all signatories. She said: "It's deeply disappointing that we haven't seen more progress from F1 when it comes to sports washing and Bahrain's human rights record [...] We can't let human rights ever be a secondary consideration."

A spokesperson for the Bahrain government said it "takes the protection of its citizens' human rights and freedom of expression extremely seriously" and has a "zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind".

Andy Slaughter, Labour Party MP for Hammersmith, is one of the signatories. He said: "At a time when many sportsmen and women are speaking up more clearly on human rights issues and addressing the concerns of their fans, the long silence of Formula 1 on the appalling human rights record of countries like Bahrain, which host lucrative races and sportswash their reputation while clamping down on their own citizens for the race period, becomes more noticeable and less defensible."

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, added: "MPs have made a landmark call for Formula 1 to put people above profit and rights above racing."

Hamilton 'throwing down a gauntlet is extremely encouraging'

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia rejected criticism after it was confirmed on the 2021 calendar while Hamilton, who is out of contract with Mercedes in five weeks, spoke about his future after clinching his seventh world title at the Turkish Grand Prix.

The Briton, 35, said: "I would love to stay, but we realise we have got to face, and not ignore, the human-rights issues in the countries that we go to - not just 20 or 30 years from now, but now. I want to help Mercedes and F1 on that journey."

Kate Allen, director for Amnesty International UK, who also acts a member of the Foreign Secretary's advisory group on human rights, said: "It's been extremely encouraging to see Lewis Hamilton throwing down a gauntlet to F1-hosting countries with shockingly poor human rights records."

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, is another of the letter's signatories. She added: "When F1's most successful driver is speaking out about human rights, it is shameful that F1 is continuing to allow its Bahraini partners to sportswash their abysmal human rights record."

Bahrain rejects criticism

A Bahrain government spokesperson said in a statement: "The government of Bahrain takes the protection of its citizens' human rights and freedom of expression extremely seriously, and this is explicitly protected by Bahrain's constitution.

"This is evidenced by the government's wide-ranging reforms in these areas over the past decade, which have been implemented in partnership with international NGOs and welcomed by numerous international governments.

"The Kingdom has a zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind. The government has put in place a range of internationally-recognised safeguards to ensure human rights abuses do not occur, including a wholly independent ombudsman - the first of its kind in the region - to oversee all complaints of mistreatment.

"The government is also clear that no-one is, or can be, arbitrarily detained in Bahrain for expressing their political views."