F1 under pressure over activist jailed for criticising the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix won by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. (Photo: AFP)
Rights groups around the world are pressuring Formula 1 to demand the Bahraini government release an activist jailed over social media posts criticising Manama's hosting of the 2017 Grand Prix.
Letters between Formula One and rights groups -- including Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy -- seen Wednesday by AFP, raise the case of Najah Yousif, jailed for three years over what rights groups say is criticism of the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Yousif opposed Formula One's decision to hold races in Bahrain on social media over the kingdom's rights records.
Prosecutors say Yousif was convicted of "broadcasting false and biased news" about conditions in Bahrain and "promoting terrorist acts".
A February 6 letter signed by 17 rights groups urged Formula One to "uphold its commitment to human rights" by calling for Yousif's immediate release and disclosing information obtained during the organiser's discussions with the Bahraini government.
A March 4 response from Formula 1 general counsel Sacha Woodward Hill said F1 was "assured that Ms. Yousif's detention, the charges she faced, her trial and her subsequent conviction had nothing to do with the peaceful protest around the Bahrain Grand Prix" -- a statement dismissed by rights groups as "absurd".
"Taking the Bahraini government's assurances that no punitive measures will be directed against activists for peacefully opposing the Grand Prix is absurd given Bahrain's track record of repressive measures to close down protests opposing the races in the country," said Aya Majzoub, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch .
Bahrain, a key US ally located between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been gripped by bouts of unrest since 2011, when authorities cracked down on Shiite-led protests demanding political reform.
Since then, hundreds of protesters have been jailed or stripped of their nationality, including athletes.
Bahrain claims Iran trains and backs demonstrators in order to topple the Manama government. Iran denies the accusation.
The kingdom will host the second Grand Prix of 2019, from March 29 to March 31.