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Rights groups call for boycott of Dakar Rally amid accusations of 'sportswashing' by Saudi Arabia

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By Andrew Robini  & Katy Dartford  with AFP and AP
MyHeritage Sponsors Team Competing in 2021 Dakar Rally
MyHeritage Sponsors Team Competing in 2021 Dakar Rally   -   Copyright  UNLIMITED MEDIA-TODOS LOS DERECHOS RESERVADOS

One of the world's most grueling events in the motorsport calendar, the Dakar Rally, is underway despite calls to boycott it amid accusations of "sportswashing" in Saudi Arabia.

Launched in 1979 between Paris and the Senegalese capital Dakar, the celebrated endurance challenge moved to the conservative kingdom for the first time last year after a decade in South America.

The move sparked angry reactions from human rights organisations who say Saudi Arabia is using sport to build up a positive reputation to distract from its human rights record.

One of the groups is supporting women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. The 31-year-old was jailed last month after being found guilty of spying and conspiring against the kingdom.

But many believe she was arrested for campaigning for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

''The Saudi government has put a number of women's rights activists into jail for nothing more than advocating for their basic rights as women, including the right to drive," said Human Rights Watch director, Minky Worden. "And this is an incredible irony since Saudi Arabia is hosting both the formula one and the Dakar rally."

Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations have tried to contact race organisers Amaury Sport, but the French organisation is yet to respond.

''These are part of a deliberate government strategy which is aimed at whitewashing human rights violations. Billions of dollars are spent hosting these extravagant entertainment or cultural events but it's really nothing more than a glitzy distraction from the Saudi government's atrocious human rights record," said Worden.

A number of other women’s rights activists remain imprisoned or continue to face trials on charges related to their activism, such as pushing for the right to drive before the ban was lifted in mid-2018.

WATCH: Andrew Robini's report in the player above.