Ecclestone insists on Bahrain GP despite human rights abuses

A Bahraini protester holds an anti-US slogan during a demonstration in solidarity with jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and against US support to the regime as well as calling for the cancellation of the Formula One Grand Prix event in the village of Zinj, south of the capital Manama on 10 April 2012. (Photo: AFP - STR)

Published Thursday, April 12, 2012

Next week's Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead unless local officials decide otherwise, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone said on Thursday, despite warnings from Amnesty International of continued human rights abuses.

"The race is on the calendar, it's scheduled. The only people that can do anything about it is the national sporting authority in the country that can ask for it to be withdrawn from the calendar," he told Reuters at the Chinese Grand Prix.

"Unless it gets withdrawn by the national sporting authority in the country, then we'll be there."

Local organizers, who had to cancel last year's race at Sakhir due to civil unrest, have been adamant that this year's event is safe to go ahead despite a continuing government crackdown on pro-democracy protests that have resulted in threats targeting the Grand Prix.

John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police who has been hired by the regime to assist its police forces in dealing with protesters has also said he felt safer in the Gulf kingdom than he often did in London.

But that view contrasts sharply with that of activists, with Amnesty reminding Formula One its Grand Prix will be performed in a country with serious human rights violations.

"It seems the Grand Prix seems might go ahead this year despite continuous reports of use of excessive force [by authorities] and torture in detention," James Lynch, Amnesty spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa, told Al-Akhbar.

Ecclestone, 81, played down reports that he would be discussing the situation with teams and governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) in Shanghai amid pressure on the sport to cancel from rights activists.

He added that any discussions in China would not change anything in any case and advised against cancelling bookings.

"No, I'm meeting the teams on unrelated matters. I'm not meeting them about Bahrain or Barcelona or Monaco or anywhere," he declared.

One unnamed team principal was quoted in Britain's Guardian newspaper this week as saying all the teams hoped the FIA would call off the race, but Ecclestone said none of them had expressed any concerns to him.

"Not at all," he said. "I think Sebastian Vettel made a statement that he's happy to be there."

Red Bull's double world champion told Reuters on Wednesday that he was ready to race in Bahrain if the powers that be felt it was safe to do so.

Ecclestone was surrounded by a crowd of television crews and photographers after arriving at the Shanghai circuit and, standing in the doorway of his office, answered repeated questions about safety.

A former team owner, he batted away a question about how he might have acted in that capacity and repeated his view that Formula One had no business telling others how to run their countries.

"We enter a country in the normal way, we don't deal with the religion or the politics," he said in response to a question about human rights abuses.

"I shall be there for sure. And you'll be there?" he inquired of Reuters with a smile. "I hope everybody is there. We shouldn't be getting involved with other people's politics."

The billionaire said he had been told by others that the country was safe and played down concerns for the safety of personnel and media.

"I don't think the people in Bahrain have got anything against Formula One team people or journalists," he said.

"Apparently people are there carrying out their business as normal, I'm told. There's a guy from Lotus who went over to check things and he said it was business as usual. But I don't know, I haven't been there."

But business is far from normal according to Bahraini human rights activists and Amnesty International.

At least 77 people have died in over one year of pro-democracy protests, while systematic torture of protesters remains a norm, according to Said Yousif, a senior figure with the Bahraini Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

Yousif claimed that after the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix last year, more than 20 employees working in the Formula One building were tortured for participating in protests.

"The Bahraini government doesn't respect Formula. More than 20 employees who were working for Formula One last year were tortured because they participated in Lulu Roundabout protests last year," he told Al-Akhbar.

Amnesty also sent a reminder to the Bahraini government that hosting the Grand Prix will not improve its public image.

"The Bahrain authorities seem to consider that the holding of the Grand Prix , which was cancelled last year, would mark the improvement of the situation in Bahrain," Lynch said.

"The government's public image will only be improved when the world can see it showing real political will and tackling the most difficult issues, in particular holding to account senior members of the security forces for serious human rights violations."

Amnesty is due to release a lengthy report on April 17 noting ongoing human rights violations against Bahraini protesters.

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters)

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