Human rights groups have urged Formula One teams to consider boycotting the Bahrain Grand Prix in April amid continued political unrest in the Gulf kingdom.
Bahrain’s season-opening race at Sakhir circuit was postponed last March after widespread political unrest in the country and the deaths of a number of pro-reform demonstrators.
Efforts were made to reschedule the race, but the Gulf state was eventually dropped from the 2011 calendar in June after protests from Formula One teams and drivers.
“We will do campaign for….drivers and teams to boycott. The government wants Formula One to tell the outside world that everything is back to normal,” said Nabeel Rajab, vice president for Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
“Formula One, if they come, they are helping the government to say [it is normal]. We would prefer it if they didn’t take part. I am sure the drivers and teams respect human rights.”
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone said in November he would press ahead with plans to return the race to Bahrain and did not believe the Grand Prix would become a focal point for protesters.
“It's on the calendar. We'll be there, unless something terrible happens to stop us,” he said.
Bahrain reportedly paid around £25m ($39.2m) in hosting fees for last year’s scrapped three-day race, after refusing an offer of a refund from F1’s Jersey-based parent company, Delta Topco.
“They have internal politics and I doubt very much whether they'd use international matters to sort out internal politics,” Ecclestone added.
Thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March last year demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination.
The pro-democracy movement was suppressed with the help of military forces brought in from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But small, low-level protests have persisted on an almost daily basis.
Mariwan Hama-Saeed of New York-based Human Rights Watch said F1 should rethink the race in light of a report into the crackdown that found police guilty of using excessive force and torture.
“[The FIA] should consider the serious abuse of human rights in Bahrain and the fact that to this day authorities continue to suppress pro-democracy protests.” Mariwan Hama-Saeed of New York-based Human Rights Watch told Arabian Business.
“I doubt that Formula One can be a success in a country where serious human rights abuses have been committed. The political situation is unstable and polarised in Bahrain. We are very concerned about the government's commitment to implement meaningful reform.”
A spokesperson for the Bahrain International Circuit said the Gulf kingdom was acting “swiftly and convincingly” on the report’s recommendations and said the race would go ahead.
“The Bahrain Grand Prix forms a fundamental part of the local economy,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.”The independent report was a milestone for Bahrain and we will now work tirelessly to ensure that the race is a great success."