15 March 2019 Update: Formula One’s recent response largely defaults to the narrative provided by the Government of Bahrain, stating that charges brought against Yusuf were unrelated to her peaceful criticisms, despite the fact that much of the evidence provided by the public prosecution in court against Yusuf calls the claim into question. This response ultimately lacks a critical observance of human rights abuses committed around the race. The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) is strongly disappointed by the weak response of Formula One. We strongly condemn Formula One’s willingness to accept the Bahraini government’s assurances to protect freedom of expression.
On 6 March 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Bahraini Institute of Rights and Democracy (BIRD) received a letter from the Formula One board addressed to the case of Najah Yusuf, a female activist who was beaten, sexually abused and jailed for protesting the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ms. Yusuf has not been allowed by the authorities to see her family for six months, an added punishment for openly criticising the race event and the regime through a series of Facebook posts in April 2017. The main and contested topic referred in the letter expresses the relying attitude of F1 members to the official assurances given by the Bahraini government, that Najah’s conviction “has nothing to do” with her criticism of the Bahrain Grand Prix. “Anyone who merely criticised or continues to criticise Formula 1 in Bahrain is free to do so” quotes the letter, however the Bahraini government’s justification seems to persuade only the board members.
A joint letter was sent last month, including 17 NGOs (especially BIRD and Human Rights Watch), to represent an official stand which pointed out the abuses faced by Ms. Najah soon after her arrest in April 2017. She was responsible for publishing critics on social media directly accusing the government of using the race to distemper their systemic human rights violations. Throughout her interrogation, Najah suffered severely beating, sexual assault and a series of rape threats, threats of death on her and on other family members. The referred letter drew special attention to explicit references to Najah’s posts about the Formula event. The incriminated post stated the following line: “no to Formula One races on occupied Bahraini land […] freedom of Formula detainees” as a reference to detained protestors over criticism of the Grand Prix, an international competition which has been held in Bahrain since 2004.
Concerning the dramatic episode, it is necessary to repost Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei’s and Aya Majzoub’s considerations. As a matter of fact, the Director of Advocacy at BIRD stated: “[…] Formula One’s decision to continually rely on false assurances by the Bahraini government, including that Najah’s imprisonment has nothing to do with her criticism of the Grand Prix, is extremely disappointing. F1’s response amounts to complicity in covering up for Bahrain. Its response is not representative of an organisation that is allegedly committed to international human rights, including free expression. Instead, Formula 1 is aiding Bahrain’s warning that no one should dare to criticize the race, and if they do so they will receive the fate of Najah, and F1 will take Bahrain’s word and remain silent. This has to change.” Furthermore, Ms. Majzoub’s observations, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, highlight the essential hypocritical behaviour of F1 directors. “Taking the Bahraini government’s assurances that no punitive measures will be directed against activists for peacefully opposing the Grand Prix is absurd given Bahrain’s track record of repressive measures to close down protests opposing the races in the country.” She later added “Formula One’s response indicates that it is willing to look the other way while Bahrain engages in severe human rights abuses, and it is complicit in Bahrain’s attempted use of the Grand Prix to whitewash those abuses.”
Ms. Najah is currently detained in Isa Town Prison, where concerns on her case and others Human Rights Defenders’ were raised by the UN Special Rapporteur. The denounces consist on a series of deteriorating conditions and abuses against political, civic and religious prisoners. Najah Yusuf has not seen her family over the past six months.
The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) welcomes the continuous struggle of all human rights activists in the Bahraini region. We are profoundly saddened for the recent news on the topic, and especially for the degree of non-collaborative strategies in between social actors. Hoping that economic interests will be once pushed aside, we stand together with the seventeen signing NGOs defending Ms. Najah Yusuf’s case and the ones of other illegal detained activists.