CNN  — 

The head of Formula One says the organization is “proud to partner with Bahrainis” as he responded to criticism about the kingdom’s human rights record ahead of the first race in the Bahrain Grand Prix double header.

Last week, 30 British lawmakers said in a letter addressed to Carey that they were concerned the Bahrain GP was being “exploited” by the Bahraini government to “‘sportswash’ their human rights record.”

The cross-party group of MPs urged the organization to “use maximum leverage to compel Bahrain to: end suppression of protests against the race, secure redress for victims and ensure the rights of Bahraini citizens are defended.”

Rights groups have repeatedly criticized Bahrain for stamping out dissent, arresting critics of the government and violently quashing protests. In 2011, a popular uprising against the country’s leadership prompted a wave of arrests.

Andy Slaughter, a Labour Party MP, said F1’s “long silence … 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.”

Asked on Saturday by CNN’s Amanda Davies if those British MPs had got it wrong, F1 CEO Chase Carey said: “Yeah. I think we’ve been very clear about our commitment to human rights, we’re very clear about our cooperation and collaboration with our partners to improve and advance the human rights issues.

“So, you know, we’ve been quite clear and I think we’re proud of our commitment to human rights.”

‘Sportswashing’ is a term used to describe governments using high-profile sporting events to project a favorable image of their country around the world.

Sportswashing: What is it and who practice it?
02:32 - Source: CNN

“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,” a government spokesperson told CNN in a statement.

“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.”

‘Lame response’

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its 2020 report that Bahrain’s human rights situation “remained dire” and “worsened” in 2019 compared to 2018. Amnesty International said that in 2019 “authorities escalated their efforts to stifle freedom of expression.”

The Bahrain GP has been part of F1’s schedule since 2004, except for in 2011 when it was canceled due to anti-government protests. This year, Bahrain is hosting grands prix on back-to-back weekends for the first time as part of the rescheduled 2020 season due to the pandemic. The second race is on December 6.

Last year, rights groups accused F1 of insensitivity to the plight of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf, a critic of the F1 race.

They called for the race to be canceled and urged drivers, including Lewis Hamilton, to boycott it. Neither Hamilton nor any other drivers publicly addressed the concerns at the time and the race went ahead.

Yusuf was jailed by the government in 2017 and says she was detained and beaten for speaki