The day after this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, a less glamorous event will take place on the tiny Gulf island. A female human rights activist is going on trial. Najah Ahmed Yousif faces 15 years imprisonment for campaigning on social media. The prosecution’s case includes evidence that allegedly links her to Facebook posts "promoting and encouraging people to overthrow the political and social systems". Bahrain is run by King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa – whose reign has been in turmoil ever since Arab Spring protests were crushed in 2011, with help from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Supporters of Ms Yousif say that she is the real victim in this case, that the prosecutor’s case includes social media posts that were peaceful and merely critical of Formula 1, and that the Bahraini authorities themselves should face scrutiny over their treatment of Ms Yousif.
In particular, they have serious concerns about a British-trained Bahraini police officer, Brigadier Fawaz Hassan Al Hassan. He is the most senior police officer in Muharraq, a city near the country’s only airport – where many F1 fans will pass through this weekend on their way to the Grand Prix circuit.
Crucially, campaigners say Brigadier Al Hassan is ultimately responsible for the police station where Ms Yousif was taken after her arrest in April of 2017. Although there is no suggestion that the Brigadier was personally involved in abusing her, or sanctioned any such abuse, they claim that it was at this station where Ms Yousif was beaten and sexually assaulted by members of Bahrain’s National Security Agency. "They physically assaulted me, they tried to tear off my clothes, touched my sexual organs, threatened me with rape," she later told her supporters in a phone call from prison.
The National Security Agency is Bahrain's equivalent to Britain’s MI5. It is separate from the police, but carried out the interrogation inside a building that the Brigadier oversees. Ms Yousif is not the only one to make these allegations. Another Bahraini woman, Ebtisam Alsaegh, claims that she was raped at the same police station a month later. Ms Alsaegh, a prominent human rights activist, has also criticised Bahrain’s King Hamad on social media.
Her case is well documented by four UN experts, who reported allegations that "officials at the Muharraq facility subjected Ms al-Saegh to severe physical and psychological torture". According to the UN report, "They beat her; stripped her of her clothing down to her undergarments; sexually assaulted her; photographed her in her state of undress; threatened to disseminate photographs of her if she angered the government in the future; threatened to kill her by sabotaging her vehicle and making her death look like an automobile accident; and threatened to kill her son."
The treatment of these women at Muharraq police station should be a matter of international concern, campaigners say, because the top police officer in that area was recently trained in the UK.
Brigadier Al Hasan visited Belfast in August of 2015 for a week-long study visit in "command and control". The trip itinerary describes how Northern Irish police officers, in conjunction with the UK Foreign Office and NI-CO, a company owned by the Stormont government, gave him and five colleagues a crash course in how to manage protestors.
"Training included sessions on water cannons, dogs and intelligence gathering..."
The trip, which cost taxpayers £16,000, was hotly denied by the UK government at first. When it was finally confirmed, documents show that it included sessions on water cannons, dogs and intelligence gathering. A year after this training, Bahrain’s King appointed Brigadier Fawaz as Director-General of the Muharraq Police Directorate, making him the most senior police officer in that district.
Despite this promotion, and the British training, 2017 saw a torrent of abuse allegations emerge from Muharraq police station. Again, there is no suggestion that the Brigadier personally abused either of the two women or ordered that any abuse should occur, but campaigners are concerned that the two incidents happened on his watch, within weeks of each other. And they say it is part of a wider pattern. As many as 15 people were tortured at the Muharraq station last year, according to their estimates.
UN experts have documented another case, involving a human rights lawyer, was allegedly electrocuted inside the same building in May of 2017. Ibrahim Jawad ‘Abd Ullah Sarhan was taken into a dark room inside the Muharraq facility by agents from the National Security Agency, who allegedly "forced his legs apart in order to kick him in the genitals". He was also stripped and given electric shocks, before being charged with "inciting antipathy against the regime".
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), said: "The British government has once again supported abusive Bahraini police, which have added to their record by raping female activists and persecuting them. The most horrific torture crimes were committed in Muharraq police station under the watch of Brigadier Fawaz Al-Hassan.
"Formula 1’s assurance that commentators can express their opinion without reprisals has not proved credible. The case of Najah Yousif illustrates how a female activist risks sexual assault by Bahraini security forces simply for daring to protest the Grand Prix."
Formula 1 is aware of Ms Yousif’s case and has told campaigners that it has made enquiries. The company told BIRD that "Ms Yousif is in pre-trial detention on charges that relate to alleged activities dating back to 2010, which do not relate to any opposition she may have expressed in relation to the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix."
"We understand that Ms Yousif has registered a complaint with the [Bahrain interior ministry] Ombudsman which will investigate the matter independently. This would seem to us to be the appropriate way for Ms Yousif to pursue any grievance."
The company suggested that the Facebook account mentioned in the public prosecutor’s case against Ms Yousif included "photographs of individuals throwing ‘Molotov cocktails’ at law enforcement vehicles and creating barricades of lit tyres. As you will understand we do not condone such conduct."
The Government of Bahrain and Brigadier Fawaz Hassan Al-Hassan did not respond to requests for comment. The Police Service of Northern Ireland and NI-CO declined to comment.
An official UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said, "The study visit in August 2015 was to allow members of the Bahraini police to observe how the Police Service of Northern Ireland manages public order issues in a human rights compliant manner.
"The UK encourages those with concerns about treatment in detention in Bahrain to report these to the relevant human rights oversight bodies. We urge these bodies to carry out swift and thorough investigations. The UK continues to encourage the Government of Bahrain to deliver on its international and domestic human rights commitments. The UK has a continuing dialogue with the Government of Bahrain in which we raise individual cases.
"The UK Government works with a number of implementation partners to support Bahraini-led reform, including in the field of human rights. These programmes aim to support progress on building effective and accountable institutions, strengthening the rule of law, and justice reform. All of our work is in line with international standards, and aims to share UK expertise and experience. Any training provided by, or on behalf of, the British Government fully complies with our domestic and international human rights obligations."