13 February 2020 – Today, Formula 1 (F1) announced that the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, which was due to take place next Sunday, will be postponed amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus. The announcement follows the cancellation of the Australia Grand Prix early this morning, while the Vietnam Grand Prix, due to begin in April, will also be postponed.

F1’s slow response to the Coronavirus crisis has garnered significant criticism, with British six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton slamming the racing-giant yesterday for attempting to press ahead with planned races in the midst of global pandemic. Last Sunday, it was announced that the Bahrain race would take place without an audience, but today’s cancellation appeared inevitable after two members of the McLaren racing team tested positive for the virus in Australia yesterday.

Today’s postponement marks the second time the Bahrain Grand Prix has been called off in the last ten years. In 2011, the race was cancelled after widespread popular unrest stemming from the Bahraini government’s crushing of Bahrain’s peaceful pro-democracy uprising.

Rights groups have persistently criticised F1 for failing to respond to the Bahraini government’s violent reaction to protests against the race. In 2012, father-of-five Salah Abbas and 22-year-old photojournalist Ahmed Ismail Hassan were killed by police during protests against the race, while in 2017 activist Najah Yusuf was tortured, sexually assaulted and imprisoned for over two years, days after publishing criticism of the race on social media.

Following Yusuf’s release by royal pardon last summer, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared her imprisonment to be arbitrary and called for her compensation. While F1 have pledged to raise Najah’s case with the Bahraini authorities, Najah faces ongoing government harassment. Najah was fired from her public sector job upon release, and her 16-year old son has since been jailed for 23-years on trumped-up charges that she considers to be in reprisal for her activism.

F1 are currently assessing “the viability of potential alternative dates” for the Bahrain Grand Prix, with the racing season expected to resume in May.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) commented: “As expected, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been postponed to combat the spread of Coronavirus. This will be the first time the race has been called off since 2011, when the government crushed Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests. While the decision is undoubtedly the right move, it is regrettable that it took a global pandemic to compel F1 to take drastic action, while human rights abuses linked to the race continue to be ignored.

For too long, Formula 1 has been wielded as a tool by Bahrain’s government to sportswash their human rights abuses; it is time for the company to take responsibility for the human rights impacts of their race in Bahrain and other abusive states around the world.”

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), commented: “The postponement of the race demonstrates that Formula 1 are capable of strong leadership when their business is at stake. It is high time they used their considerable leverage with the Bahraini government to obtain justice for those targeted for protesting against their race, beginning by securing redress for Najah Yusuf in line with UN recommendations.”