Karen Dabrowska

Tripoli Post Article

Originally published: 27th April 2013

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Don’t Race on the Bahraini People’s Blood, Activists Tell World and FIA


“Don’t race on the Bahraini people’s blood.” That was the message from human rights act ivists inside Bahrain and throughout the world to the organisers of the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix held last Sunday in Manama.

The activists were concerned that the Bahraini regime is using the race as a propaganda exercise to convince the world that all is well in the kingdom and the citizens are enjoying a peaceful and prosperous life. Foreign dignitaries, politicians and invitees to the race are hosted in five star hotels and given a sanitised tour of the country in the hope they will spread the message that life goes on as normal.

The main opposition society Al-Wefaq said that more than 100 people were arrested this month, many from villages near the circuit. The Bahrain Freedom Movement reported that Hajji Ibrahim Hassan Salman Al Samahiji, 61, was martyred after inhaling excessive amounts of chemical gases fired by the regime’s forces at peaceful demonstrators.

His funeral was attacked mercilessly by the regime’s security forces and death Squads causing several casualties. Police officers also stormed Jabreya school for boys after students staged a protest demanding the release of a colleague.

Speaking at a press conference organised in the House of Lords in London by the Parliamentary Human Rights Group prior to the race, Bahraini journalist and human rights activist Lamis Taif said: “We are furious about F1 not because we hate the race and we do not like events being held in our country. It is because we do not want some respectable race like the F1 to provide a cover for the crimes that take place in our country.”

Despite the violent suppression of the peaceful protests in Manama’s Pearl Roundabout in February 2011 demonstrations have been held almost every day throughout Bahrain condemning the dictatorial Al Khalifa regime.

Sherif Azerh from Frontline Defenders described how, faced with widespread protests and unrest, the Bahraini authorities responded with harsh measures and a crackdown on protesters, civil society leaders, human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists. Human rights defenders were tried in military courts, often charged with fabricated crimes, and given hugely disproportionate sentences.

Furthermore many have been ill-treated and tortured in detention, have been held incommunicado and denied access to family and lawyers, while confessions made under duress have been admitted as evidence in court in contravention of international law.

He highlighted the plight of prominent human rights defenders in Bahrain including Ali Abdelemam a blogger and free speech activist who has been targeted by the Bahraini authorities since he started ‘Bahrain Online’ - the first online forum for Bahrainis to express their opinions freely. Ali Abdelemam’s whereabouts are unknown. On 23 February 2011, he was released from prison as a result of an international campaign for his freedom.

In prison, he suffered torture and beatings. When he learned that the authorities were rounding up other activists, he went into hiding. Ali has been missing for over a year, but in the meant ime, he was charged in absentia to 15 years in prison as part of a group of defendants that included Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.

Al-Khawaja who was sentenced to life imprisonment is recovering from the impact of his extended hunger strike, which lasted 110 days. He was given a life sentence on charges of “organising and managing a terrorist organisation”, “attemping to overthrow the Government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country” and the “collection of money for a terrorist group.”

All of these charges were filed based on emergency legislation that the Bahraini government introduced during the wave of civilian protest that started in February. No credible evidence was presented in the hearing to support any of these charges, and the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry ( BICI) report conclusively ruled out any foreign involvement in the pro-democracy protests.

During the press conference British Labour MP Andy Slaughter who chairs the all-party parliamentary Group for Democracy Bahrain distributed an open letter he sent to Bernie Ecclestone head of Formula 1 which stated that: “Since April 2012, many more people - including children - have lost their lives and the whole of Bahrain exists in fear and intimidation. Last year’s race was held under conditions of martial law.

“Three hundred protesters were arrested, some spending months in jail. I think most democratic-minded people would be appalled if you allowed the Bahrain leg of the Formula 1 championship to go ahead amidst the most atrocious human rights violations.”

“Ecclestone replied dismissing calls for the cancellation and said: ”It is a great shame this was not brought to me before September 2012 when the FIA Formula One World Championship calendar was formed and it is now too late to make any changes to the calendar. I have not received any complaints from journalists concerning their accreditation to this year’s event.” He also volunteered to mediate between the protestors and the government.

But Dr Saeed Shehabi, the London representative of the Bahrain Freedom Movement dismissed the offer as empty words. “He said this last time. Two years ago he admitted demonstrators are not bad people but he is in the same line as the government. Like Ian Henderson he toes the line of the Bahraini government. (Henderson was employed as head of the General Directorate for State Security Investigations in Bahrain for 30 years).

Now, like Henderson, Eccleston is another face of the British establishment. The hope was that he would heed calls to cancel the race. The Bahraini people are really angry because of his decision and his attempt to by pass the feelings, the anguish and the anger of the people.”

Four British trade unions signed an open letter that was sent to the media. It said; “Bahrain’s rulers have made no progress on key reform processes, failing to release unjustly imprisoned activists or to hold accountable high-level officials responsible for torture.”

It ended by saying: “In these circumstances, we, the undersigned, call upon the British government to support the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2013.”

The letter was signed by Len McCluskey; General Secretary UNITE, Paul Kenny; General Secretary GMB, Billy Hayes; General Secretary CWU and Dave Prentis; General Secretary UNISON.

Lord Avebury vice chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group drew attention to a bill going through the puppet parliament in Bahrain to impose yet further restrictions on the few surviving independent NGOs.

They will need ministerial approval to cooperate with foreign organisations; to publish anything whatsoever; to open a bank account or carry out any financial transaction; to invite any foreigner to attend a conference, workshop or other activity in Bahrain.

Ministers will have power to appoint people to the boards of NGOs; to merge them with other organisations such as the government-owned NGOs, the GONGOs; to annul their elections; to demand copies of all their minutes, and to issue binding guidance on their activities.

Amnesty International said new penalties and Bahrain’s continued detention of activists contrasted with the government’s claim that citizens were free to exercise their right to peaceful expression of views.

“Increasing the punishment for criticism of Bahrain’s king is a further attempt to muzzle activists ahead of the Grand Prix,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, its Middle East deputy director. “The authorities’ reliance on a vaguely-worded criminal ‘offence’ to avoid scrutiny of their record says a lot about their own failures and lack of commitment to reform.”

Bahraini human rights activist Abbas Omran was dismayed that international mechanisms were not applied to Bahrain. He told the press conference that in 1990 FIFA took action against Iraq due to rumours that its players had been tortured by Uday, Saddam’s son and head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

“They stopped Iraq from attending any international games or any international event. The international mechanism worked at that time even though there was no solid evidence that the players had been tortured. There is more solid evidence about Bahrain.

Nasser Bin Hamad the president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and a member of the royal family threatened the players. Bahraini players were taken to prison and tortured. In Bahrain the case is very well documented. Why is the FIFA mechanism not working in Bahrain. Why has Bahrain not been stopped from attending international games?