3 July 2019 – Last week, a coalition of unions, NGOs and sporting organisations presented a letter to the president of Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), David Lappartient, protesting the Bahrain-Merida team’s participation in the Tour de France and other professional cycling competitions. UCI is the international governing body for professional cycling.
The letter is endorsed by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR), Football Supporters Europe, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Transparency International Germany, and the World Players Association, UNI Global Union.
The groups raise concerns about the granting of a WorldTeam license to the Bahrain-Merida pro cycling team, which is funded by the Bahraini government. The team was founded in 2017 by the son of Bahrain’s ruling monarch, Prince Nasser bin Isa Alkhalifa, and the Italian pro-cyclist Vincenzo Nibali, with the stated goal of promoting the Kingdom of Bahrain on the international stage.
The signatories of the letter urge UCI to disclose any ethical evaluation made when renewing Bahrain-Merida’s racing license in December 2018 and to “consider Bahrain’s human rights record when reviewing Bahrain-Merida’s license application for the 2020 cycling season.” They also encourage the organisation to ensure its ethics policies conform to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
The letter accuses the government of Bahrain of using the Bahrain-Merida team “to divert international attention from the country’s appalling human rights record”, a practice known as “sportswashing”. Bahrain’s exploitation of similarly prestigious sporting events, such as Formula One’s Bahrain Grand Prix and the Royal Windsor Horse Show, has been criticised repeatedly for presenting a sanitised image of the country to the world’s media. Bahrain is accused of leading an ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression and civil liberties in the country since 2017.
The Bahraini government has continued to target athletes for speaking out. Over the last few months, Australian refugee footballer Hakeem AlAraibi made international headlines when Bahrain attempted to have him extradited from Thailand, where he was visiting with his wife for their honeymoon. AlAraibi fled Bahrain in 2012 from fabricated vandalism charges.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD, commented: “Bahrain-Merida’s participation in the Tour de France, one of the world’s most iconic sporting events, provides a major opportunity for the government of Bahrain to sportswash their tarnished international reputation. With a long history of persecuting professional athletes, including credible allegations of torture, Bahrain is a totally unsuitable partner for an international sporting team.
The UCI has a responsibility to conduct a thorough human rights assessment of all its teams and we urge them to reconsider Bahrain-Merida’s suitability when reviewing their license later this year. Having worked so hard to rehabilitate professional cycling from its scandal-ridden past, it would be a crying shame if the UCI’s affiliation with Bahrain allowed the organisation to be dragged back into the mire of controversy.”