Human rights campaigners call for Tour de France ban on Bahrain-Merida

Bahrain-Merida denies links to government and distances itself from allegations of human rights abuses

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A campaign group has penned a letter to the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), David Lappartient, protesting against the Bahrain-Merida team’s participation in the Tour de France.

The letter has been signed by 11 campaign groups in total, including the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). They’re acting under the umbrella group, Sport and Rights Alliance.

The writers are calling for the team to be excluded from the Tour de France, and other professional cycling competitions, due to human rights violations allegedly carried out by the Bahraini government.

“The Bahraini government has a reputation for using high-profile sporting events to divert international attention from the country’s appalling human rights record and we are concerned that Bahrain-Merida’s participation in UCI competitions is consistent with these aims,” the letter states.

It references both Formula One’s Bahrain Grand Prix and the Royal Windsor Horse Show as examples of similar behaviour.

Bahrain-Merida insists that the team is not funded by the government and therefore cannot be held responsible for its actions.

The team is funded primarily by Bahraini financial and telecommunications companies, with Taiwanese bike manufacturer Merida as a lead sponsor.

The team also receives “barter” sponsorship in the form of glasses, jerseys and shoes from a number of European brands, as well as additional support from a number of Bahraini semi-government companies.

The team emphatically denies receiving any financial support from the government of Bahrain, and adds that many of the alleged human rights abuses are in any case historical and pre-date the formation of the team in 2017.

The country’s regime has drawn mass concern since the Bahraini uprising in 2011, when 28 citizens died, five of whom were tortured in custody. The writers say that the situation has “deteriorated substantially” since this time, speaking of “systematic attacks on freedom of expression.”

The letter references the 2017/2018 Amnesty International Report which notes a “large scale campaign to clamp down on all forms of dissent,” and the use of “excessive force, resulting in the deaths of five men and one child and the injury of hundreds.”

It also draws attention to six journalists currently in prison as a result of their work, and persecution of athletes who question the regime.

It’s far from the first time concerns have been aired to the UCI – in 2016 groups requested that the team’s application for a UCI licence be rejected ahead of its inaugural year in 2017.

Discussing the most recent plea to ban the team, Director of Advocacy at BIRD, Sayed Ahmed Alwadei, said: “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.”

Alwadei says the group had not had a response from the UCI, at time of writing. 

Responding to a Cycling Weekly request, a UCI spokesperson said: “The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) confirms receipt of the letter addressed by the World Players’ Association on behalf of a number of NGOs. The letter relays allegations of violations of human rights by the Bahrain regime, which had been drawn to the attention of the UCI prior to the initial registration of Bahrain-Merida as a UCI WorldTeam late 2016.

“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 by the Licence Commission concentrates on the team and its members and will allow applicant teams to be granted UCI WorldTeam licences for a further period of 3 years, subject to respecting the annual registration procedures.”