Bernie Ecclestone is an appropriate person to be the public face of Formula 1, a ‘sport’ which is fast becoming known as the event of choice for autocrats who wish to launder their international reputation, as evidenced by the appearance of races in Bahrain and Dubai in recent years.
Ecclestone famously praised Thatcher, Hitler and Saddam a few years ago, saying that he preferred strong leaders, that Hitler was a man who was ‘able to get things done’, and yet paradoxically, that politics ‘is not for me’.
Equally bizarre, he continues to support the Bahraini régime, asserting that ‘I haven’t had any negative reports from anybody there’. That could be because he hasn’t spoken to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, the main opposition Party Al-Wefaq, the Bahrain Freedom Movement or the people who take part in the daily demonstrations against the ruling al-Khalifa family. His informants are the royal family themselves and their acolytes, who are responsible for widespread discrimination against the opposition, and suppression of dissent.
Thirteen leading political and human rights activists are serving life or long determinate sentences of imprisonment.
Demonstrators are bombarded at close range with birdshot and teargas canisters. Hundreds are arrested, and around 90 people have died from state violence and torture since the uprising began in February 2011.
No opposition press or broadcasting is allowed, and social media is subject to intense surveillance, using the UK company Gamma’s FinSpy software, regularly touted at UK arms and security expos.
At last year’s F1 race in Bahrain, a man was killed by security forces in a crackdown aimed at preventing the international media from recording any signs of opposition. When a Channel 4 team tried to go into deprived villages where the opposition’s supporters live, they were arrested and deported.
If the race does go ahead this year, it will be the duty of the media to use it as the introduction to a closer scrutiny of Bahrain’s abysmal record on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They should also look at Britain’s shameful friendship with this former colony of ours. We supplied them with their chief torturer Ian Henderson in the 1990s, and today they are regular buddies with the Queen and the Prime Minister. This doesn’t stack up with our claim to promote the freedoms we enjoy ourselves across the globe.
This is all a matter of indifference to Ecclestone. He reportedly told the Bahraini activist Alaa Shehabi last year that he wouldn’t mind if the race was cancelled, because he had already cashed the check from the Bahraini government. His priority is profit and he evinces no sign of concern about the suffering of those who have to pay the price for it.
Let’s hope that Bahrain will follow in the steps of South Africa, where the Formula 1 races were cancelled in 1985 amid rising international awareness of the moral bankruptcy of the Apartheid regime. Bahrain’s regime is equally discriminatory and corrupt, and deserves the same fate.
* Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, is a working peer, and Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group. He blogs here.