F1 fact-finding report finds “NO indication of any problems” in Bahrain

F1 fact-finding report finds “NO indication of any problems” in Bahrain

UPDATE: Ecclestone now says the race is a no-go due to the opposition of the racing teams. "Of course it’s not on," the BBC quotes him saying.

On Friday, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body for the world of motor sports, announced its decision to return the Bahrain Grand Prix to the island Gulf nation, which has been rocked by unrest, brutal human rights abuses, and a deepening sectarian divide since protests broke out on Feb. 14.

In making its decision, the FIA sent a "fact-finding mission" to Bahrain in late May to determine whether it would be safe to hold the race, which was canceled earlier this year amid the violence. According to Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, quoted in the Guardian, "The FIA sent people out there to check on the situation, they came back and reported everything is fine."

The report, a copy of which was provided to FP by the New York-based human rights group Avaaz, was signed by FIA Vice President Carlos Gracia, who traveled to Bahrain on May 30 and May 31 along with an assistant, Carlos Abella.

It appears to be a complete whitewash.

According to the report, Gracia and Abella met with several government officials, including Minister of Culture Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, Public Security Chief Maj. Gen. Tariq bin Dana, Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R. al-Zayani, and BIC CEO Salman bin Eissa al-Khalifa — and seem to have accepted their views uncritically.

They also met with Tariq al-Saffar of the pro-grovernment National Institute of Human Rights, who was appointed in 2010 by King Hamad. (Saffar is also managing director of advertising firm Fortune Promoseven, which lists the F1 Grand Prix as a client.)

Gracia and Abella did dine with several unnamed foreign business leaders — a dinner arranged by their government host — but met with zero members of the opposition or with independent rights groups, and did not tour Shiite neighborhoods that have reportedly been under siege for weeks, though they did visit a shopping mall.

Nonetheless, they concluded, "Life in Bahrain is completely normal again" — an observation at odds with copious reporting on the state of fear that has gripped the country since Saudi troops intervened in late March.

Other questionable assertions: "Security is guaranteed" … "visitor figures have returned to the same level — and are even increasing — when compared against figures in previous years" … "atmosphere of total calm and stability" … "the presence of military forces was limited to a few, certain, strategic points."

In perhaps their most ludicrous claim, the fact-finders found "NO indication of any problems or reason why Bahrain’s F1 Grand Prix should not return to the 2011 Calendar."

No problems?

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director Tom Porteous, in a May 26 letter to FIA chairman Jean Todt, urged the FIA to consider the government’s harsh crackdown in making its decision.

"The government’s violent suppression of all protests in mid-March, in which some two dozen persons were killed, mostly protesters or bystanders at the hands of security forces, has featured large-scale arbitrary arrests, protracted incommunicado detention, and credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment of persons in custody," Porteous wrote.

That advice seems to have been ignored.

"Formula 1 wanted to be told that everything is fine, and that’s the answer they got," said Rutgers University assistant professor Toby Jones, an expert on Bahrain.

The Bahraini regime has presented the return of the Grand Prix as a major victory, a stamp of approval from an international community that has largely condemned the crackdown.

But holding the race may have been a miscalculation, warned Jones, "because it gives the protesters a date to rally around."

The race is now scheduled for October 30, but a change of heart by Ecclestone and growing opposition from racing teams could see it canceled yet again.

President Obama was due to meet Bahrain’s crown prince on Tuesday.