Protestors of the 2014 Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix in Saar, Bahrain.
Photo: Hasan Jamali (AP)

Formula One’s leaders finally admitted they’re “concerned” that a woman protesting the Bahrain Grand Prix on Facebook got thrown in jail for three years, the Guardian reports. It’s an acknowledgment from the series’ new owners that people do suffer outside of race-track walls, no matter how much past owners tried to ignore their politics and controversy.

F1 runs roughly 20 races worldwide each year, bringing one of the top tiers of motorsport (we’ll call it the pinnacle after F1 races on an oval) to tracks and street circuits around the world. But not all of its destinations are without notable controversy and human rights disputes, like the series’ current annual trips to Azerbaijan and Bahrain, not to mention its history of racing in Apartheid South Africa.

The recent Guardian report is about the arrest of activist Najah Yusuf, jailed for three years after a series of Facebook posts in April of 2017 “critical of the race and the regime” amid F1 visiting Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, the story said. That regime is of the al-Khalifa family, which the New York Times wrote in a 2015 story is of Sunni origin and has ruled Bahrain since the 18th century. Shiites grew to the the majority of the population in recent decades, the Times wrote, wanting equal social treatment with the Sunnis.

That Times story gives a good idea of what’s happened surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix, describing protests of the 2012 race, which came the year after the year after the Times reported 70 deaths and “many” imprisonments around the canceled 2011 race:

A demonstrator was killed by security forces during the protests, but there was no violence at the race track or in central Manama, where most of the sports journalists were staying. Several members of the Force India team were caught in a hail of Molotov cocktails while driving back to the city from the track, but no one was injured.

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Yusuf claimed she was beaten and sexually assaulted during the interrogation for her recent arrest, and the Guardian reports that human-rights groups accused F1 of waiting until months after they contacted the series in March to respond to Yusuf’s situation. (The Guardian only used “plight” to describe it, and didn’t go into detail about what all the groups claim they told F1.)

From the report:

In the court judgment against her it was noted that she had written “No to Formula races on occupied Bahraini land” and claimed that F1 coming to her country was “nothing more than a way for the [ruling] al-Khalifa family to whitewash their criminal record and gross human rights violations”. She also called for a “Freedom for the Formula Detainees” march to put the spotlight on protestors jailed for criticising the Bahrain Grand Prix.

A week later Najah was arrested. During her interrogation she claims she was beaten with shoes, groped and sexually assaulted. She also alleges that she was repeatedly asked: “How many times have boys ridden you?” before her questioner threatened to “ride” her several times. There was no lawyer present and Najah says she was subsequently coerced into signing a pre-prepared confession which led to her being jailed in June.

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The Bahrain government said Yusuf was jailed for “promoting and encouraging people to overthrow the political and social systems,” the Guardian said.

F1’s legal counsel responded as such, according to the Guardian:

“We are concerned by the citation in the court judgment of Ms Yusuf’s comment opposing the staging of the 2017 Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix,” Sacha Woodward Hill, general counsel for F1, told Scriven and Bird. “And we have raised our concerns with our counterparts in Bahrain, as part of our ongoing enquiries.

“Formula One is committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally. As part of our commitment we expect that commentators who may wish to use the occasion of a formula one grand prix event to express opinions peacefully will be able to do so without punitive action, before, during or after the event.”

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The Guardian has far more on Yusuf in the context of the Bahrain Grand Prix protests here, and the reporting is worth the read.

Yusuf’s story is part of a bigger issue with F1’s visits to oppressive countries with poor records in terms of human rights, and the apparent bubble F1 puts itself in when it visits the countries. Bahrain most certainly uses the race for good PR about the country. When F1 added a street race in the Azerbaijan capital city of Baku to its calendar a few years ago, human-rights groups stood against F1 and urged the series and the FIA not to go. Baku and Bahrain were on the calendar this year, with F1 visiting both in April.

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The New York Times wrote in 2015 about the year the Bahrain Grand Prix was canceled amid protests and forceful government response that led to bloodshed, 2011, and how things went on as usual the next year. That was despite tens of thousands of people protesting on a major highway to demand the race be canceled that year, according to the Guardian.

From the Times’ 2012 timeline:

Despite public calls from British politicians, human rights groups and other organizations around the world to cancel the race, Formula One remained adamant that the show would go on.

“I can’t call this race off,” said Bernie Ecclestone, the series’s promoter.

“Nothing to do with us. We’ve an agreement to be here, and we’re here.”The Formula One drivers either made no comment or, like Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, the reigning world champion, said that they could not understand what all the fuss was about.“I haven’t seen anyone throwing bombs,” he said. “I don’t think it is that bad. There is a lot of hype, which is why I think it is good that we start our job here, which is the sport and nothing else.”

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F1 is under new owners as of 2016 who haven’t agreed with how the old reign approached a number of things, but so far, that’s involved different approaches to promotion, media, and grid girls. Nothing has gravely changed in F1's dealings with dictatorships.

Perhaps this move to acknowledge Yusuf’s experiences and claims, while it isn’t much, is a move toward an F1 that could eventually learn from the transgressions it’s so easily made in the past.