Campaigners for democracy and human rights in Bahrain have criticised David Beckham and other British celebrities for attending Sunday’s Formula One race in the Gulf state.
The 43-year-old former England captain posted a picture of himself waving the chequered flag at the Bahrain Grand Prix to his 55 million followers on Instagram and was also seen meeting Crown Prince Salman.
Beckham, however, was not the only recognisable face at the Grand Prix, as Prince Andrew, his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson and their daughter Princess Beatrice were also there as royal guests, with film director Guy Ritchie, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and television presenter Carol Vorderman also spotted.
But in a statement released to Press Association Sport on Monday, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei said: “It’s upsetting to see David Beckham enjoying the Bahrain GP and shaking hands with Bahrain’s tyrants.
“While he smiles to the camera waving the Grand Prix flag, he should not forget the thousands of political prisoners that are jailed because they stood against repression.
“He should remember female activist Najah Yusuf, who paid a heavy price for opposing the race in 2017, and is now languishing in prison after being subjected to sexual assault and abuse.”
Representatives for Beckham, who played for Manchester United, Real Madrid, Los Angeles Galaxy, AC Milan and Paris St Germain during a hugely successful playing career, have not responded to a Press Association Sport request for comment.
Yusuf’s case was one of several highlighted by human rights groups in the build-up to the race, as it is alleged she was sentenced to three years in prison in 2017 for simply criticising the government and objecting to the Bahrain Grand Prix in a series of social media posts.
Bahrain has been a controversial F1 host since it joined the race calendar in 2004, with the 2011 edition cancelled following a violent crackdown on anti-government protests.
There were calls from inside and outside the sport to quit Bahrain permanently but F1 returned in 2012 and the sport has largely ignored criticism of the country’s dismal human rights record ever since.
Speaking to PA Sport, Amnesty UK’s head of policy Allan Hogarth said: “Clearly hosting F1 is seen by the authorities in Bahrain as another opportunity to launder their image and distract attention away from the country’s severe restrictions on basic freedoms.
“It would be great to see some of the high-profile sports fans in attendance flying the flag for human rights, and speaking out on behalf of the brave people there like Nabeel Rajab, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison simply for tweeting about the war in Yemen and torture in prisons.”
Aya Majzoub, a Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “Those involved in Bahrain’s Grand Prix should ask if they are helping to cheer-lead a government which tortures and imprisons peaceful critics.”
F1 usually tries to avoid making any comment on the politics of their hosts but did issue a statement to Press Association Sport last week in response to Human Rights Watch’s criticism of the Yusuf case.
“We continue to remind all our promoters, including Bahrain, that peaceful protests at all our events is a democratic right, and we continue to raise our concerns in regard to Ms Yusuf with the Bahraini authorities,” it said.
For its part, the Bahrain government has denied that Yusuf was sentenced for criticising the race, saying she was imprisoned on anti-terrorism charges, although BIRD’s Alwadaei dismissed these claims as the product of “forged evidence”.