first_imgCampaign groups have written to the UCI, cycling’s governing body, protesting at its licensing of the Bahrain-Merida team, and the team’s participation in the Tour de France, due to concerns for human rights.In the letter, under the umbrella of the Sport and Rights Alliance and led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), the signatories claim that the team, led by the 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, is a vehicle for the Bahrain government to “sportswash” its appalling human rights abuses. The Recap: sign up for the best of the Guardian’s sport coverage Reuse this content Human rights Sportswashing and the tangled web of Europe’s biggest clubs Read more Since you’re here… Bahrain … we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. 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This means we can give a voice to those less heard, explore where others turn away, and rigorously challenge those in power.We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism, to maintain our openness and to protect our precious independence. Every reader contribution, big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Support The Guardian Topics Tour de France 2019 Tour de France Read more Share on WhatsApp Cycling Share on Messenger Share on Facebook The spokesperson did not explain what approach the UCI took to the human rights concerns, or why they were not a barrier to the team’s registration. He added: “For the upcoming season, the independent licence commission will review the applicable criteria, including ethical, based on all available information pertaining to the team. The assessment … concentrates on the team and its members.”Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at Bird, described that as a “very disappointing” response. “We raised similar concerns in 2016 and despite the severity of our concerns the UCI awarded Bahrain-Merida team the WorldTeam licence,” he said. “We are asking the UCI now to be transparent about their due diligence and to disclose their assessment, as a rational assessment must account for a history of severe rights abuses.” “The Bahraini government has a reputation for using high-profile sporting events to divert international attention from the country’s appalling human rights record,” the letter states, “and we are concerned that Bahrain-Merida’s participation in UCI competitions is consistent with these aims.”Addressed personally to the UCI president, David Lappartient, the letter alleges that the Bahrain-Merida team may be in violation of the UCI’s code of ethics, which requires participants to “show commitment to an ethical attitude”.The signatories, also including Transparency International Germany and the Committee to Protect Journalists, urge the UCI to disclose its review of the team’s ethical compliance conducted as part of the licensing process and to consider the human rights abuses highlighted when reviewing the team’s licence for next season.Bahrain-Merida has strongly denied the allegations, arguing that they are ill-targeted and illogical because the team are completely distinct and separate from the Bahraini government.International concern for human rights has focused on the gulf kingdom of Bahrain since the regime’s brutal crackdown of popular demonstrations during the 2011 Arab spring, in which 28 civilians died, including five people who had been tortured while in government custody.The most recent Amnesty international report, for 2017-18, referred to in the letter, noted deepening repression, including the deaths of five men and one child, and hundreds of people injured, due to excessive force including live ammunition being used against protestors; “scores of people sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials”, and at least 150 people stripped of their nationality.Citing “a large-scale campaign to clamp down on all forms of dissent”, Amnesty cited media restrictions including the closure of Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, al-Wasat, the targeting of journalists, and the reported torture of human rights defenders and political activists. The signatories draw attention in their letter to the fact that the Bahrain-Merida team was launched in 2017 by a son of the ruling king of Bahrain, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who is still described as the team’s leader on its website. The website states that the team project began “with a casual bike ride in the desert of Bahrain between His Highness Sheikh Nasser and Vincenzo Nibali”.A brigadier-general in the Bahrain army and commander of the Royal Guard, Sheikh Nasser is a senior figure in the country’s sports institutions, chairing the Olympic committee until March this year. In 2011 he called publicly, on television, for the punishment of sportspeople who had taken part in demonstrations, saying: “To everyone that demands the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on their heads … whether he is an athlete, an activist or a politician … Today is the judgment day.”More than 150 professional sportspeople were reported to have been arrested, detained, tortured, imprisoned or excluded from their sports during the crackdown, for taking part in pro democracy demonstrations. Representatives of Sheikh Nasser say that he had no personal involvement in identifying any athletes nor in any suspensions or arrests.“Sportswashing” is a term coined by Amnesty to describe repressive regimes sanitising their countries’ reputations by becoming associated with sport’s appeal. The Tour de France and other cycling competitions offer all sponsors weeks of coverage with logos worn by great athletes in some of the world’s most spectacular locations. Representatives of the Bahrain-Merida team and Sheikh Nasser told the Guardian that the team is not associated with the country’s human rights record, is not in breach of the UCI’s ethics code nor engaged in sportswashing because it is completely distinct and separate from the government. They say that the team is funded by private sponsors, including Merida, the cycling manufacturer listed on the Taiwanese stock exchange, although several of the sponsors – which include the Bahrain sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat and the oil company Bapco which itself says that it is wholly owned by the government – are described as “semi-government companies”. A UCI spokesperson told the Guardian that it had been aware of the “allegations of human rights violations by the Bahrain regime … prior to the initial registration of Bahrain-Merida as a UCI WorldTeam late 2016.” Middle East and North Africa Share on Pinterest Share via Email Share on Twitter Share on LinkedInlast_img