Human rights groups accused Formula One on Wednesday of ignoring abuses allegedly related to the Bahrain Grand Prix, urging the sport's leaders to honour commitments and take a stronger stance.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and Index on Censorship were among 17 signatories of a letter to Formula One raising concerns about the jailing of female activist and blogger Najah Yusuf.
The letter, sent last month, said Bahrain's High Criminal Court had cited Yusuf's criticism of the 2017 Formula One race in a judgement that led to her being handed a three-year sentence.
Formula One's general counsel Sacha Woodward-Hill replied, in letter made available by BIRD on Wednesday and seen by Reuters, that the sport had raised concerns with the Bahraini authorities who said the charges and conviction had "absolutely no relation to the F1 race".
In a statement emailed to Euronews, a government spokesman said: "Najah Yusuf’s conviction does not relate to Bahrain’s Formula 1 Grand Prix. Any suggestion that she was convicted of a related offence is categorically incorrect. She was charged and subsequently convicted by a court of terror offences.
"Furthermore, Najah Yusuf’s defence did not claim during her trial that her right to free speech had been infringed. Peaceful protests of any kind are protected by Bahrain’s constitution and do not constitute a crime."
BIRD's head of advocacy Sayed Ahmed Alwadei, an exiled activist with relatives jailed in Bahrain, said Formula One was relying on false assurances.
"F1’s response amounts to complicity in covering up for Bahrain," he said.
British peer Lord Scriven, who is to meet Formula One management on March 13 to discuss Yusuf's case, was quoted by BIRD as saying the sport was happy to be "a fig leaf".
"If the leaders of Formula One won't deal with human rights abuses that are directly linked to their sporting events, then maybe it's time to take the case direct to the sponsors, teams and individual drivers," he added.
Home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the Gulf island has prosecuted hundreds of protesters in mass trials and banned the main opposition groups.
Most leading Shi'ite opposition figures and human rights activists are imprisoned or abroad.
The race has been held since 2004, with the exception of 2011 when it was cancelled due to pro-democracy protests led mainly by Shi’ite Muslims in the Sunni-ruled country, and contributes significantly to F1 revenues through hosting fees.
This year's race is round two of the season on March 31. Formula One teams are contractually obliged to take part in the entire 21 race championship.