Commentary: Bahrain prince’s torture allegations too big for cycling to ignore

by Shane Stokes


How bad is too bad?

That’s the question professional cycling must consider.

It’s a question of money versus morality. The lure of a new team versus some thorny old questions.

The new Kingdom of Bahrain cycling project has quickly gained publicity, and it’s not the kind it’s been seeking.

The team hit the headlines in February when 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali was linked to a move there. In May, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a 29-year-old member of the royal family and son of the king, officially launched the project.

He said that after focusing on triathlon and motorsport, the Kingdom of Bahrain wanted to become the home of cycling in the region.

“Bahrain Cycling Team will inspire, race hard, and look elegant,” he promised, wearing a smart white shirt adorned with the squad’s logo.

In ways, it seemed like good news for the sport.

At least two WorldTour teams are poised to disappear in 2017 – IAM Cycling and Tinkoff – and if that does happen, there will be many riders and staff scrabbling around for jobs.

Nobody wants to see riders and staff become unemployed. A new project would certainly help lessen the damage.

There is a minus, though. A sinking feeling in the stomach. Some rather uncomfortable allegations have surfaced about the man trying to set up the new Bahrain team.

In 2012, a dossier of torture allegations were given to the British Crown Prosecution Service when Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa was attending the London Olympics.

He was subsequently allowed to return home when the CPS decided he had diplomatic immunity. However in 2014 the High Court in London decided that he was not immune from prosecution.

The Bahrain government rejected the claims and said they were politically motivated.

Fast forward two years, though, and those allegations remain. In fact, they have been stepped up this week with several organisations lobbying the UCI to reject the team’s application.

According to a recent report in The Guardian, several organizations, including the Bahrain Institute for Human Rights and Democracy (BIRD), and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), state that Prince Nasser is trying to use cycling to whitewash his past.

They also claim that his involvement would be in breach of the UCI’s code of ethics.

In a letter sent to UCI President Brian Cookson, both organisations laid out a series of allegations. These include claims that:

– “Prince Nasser is alleged of personally torturing protesters in April 2011 during a state of emergency in Bahrain, during which time the Government of Bahrain cracked down on a popular uprising it faced.”

– “Prince Nasser, as a member of the ruling family in Bahrain and occupying positions of authority in relation to sport, used his position to supress pro-democracy protest. In response to peaceful demonstrations by athletes and others, he appeared on state-run Bahrain TV on 3 April 2011. He threatened that ‘whoever calls for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head … whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is, he will be held accountable at this time. Today is the judgement day.’ This was a clear threat against legitimate pro-democracy activity.”

– “Prince Nasser was at the head of systemic punitive measures against athletes. In all, some 120 athletes and club personnel were suspended across the sports of football, basketball, handball, volleyball, bodybuilding and snooker, including 27 members of national sports teams. At least 22 were arbitrarily arrested between April and June 2011, with some alleging that they were tortured.”

The organisations also said that Human Rights Watch found last November that torture continues to be employed systematically in Bahrain, and noted that this year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for “profound reform” in the country.

So, what does this mean for cycling?

The sport has certainly had some questionable characters in its past. To name but a couple, in the last decade controversial U.S. businessman Michael Ball set up the Rock Racing Team and signed several returning dopers. He relished in the bad-boy image, for himself and his squad.

There was, it seemed, no such thing as bad publicity.

Oleg Tinkov followed a similar tactic with his Tinkoff Credit Systems team, signing another spate of previously sanctioned riders. He then walked away from the sport, but caused rumbles again when he returned in 2012 and set about creating a stir.

A series of sexist, homophobic and racist tweets — including a jab at U.S. president Barack Obama — have been dismissed by him as just a bit of fun, but have also led to plenty of criticism.

Torture, though; well, if proven, that’s surely something far too big to ignore.

The UCI isn’t commenting at this point in time. It hasn’t confirmed a WorldTour application from the team. But, if and when that is lodged, the Licence Commission – and, most likely, the Ethics Commission – will surely have to study the allegations.

BIRD and ECCHR are clear in what they are requesting of Cookson and the Ethics Commission head, Richard Leggat.

“As President of the Ethics Commission, you are responsible for safeguarding principles of the CoE [Code of Ethics] and the integrity and reputation of Cycling. We believe that the involvement of Prince Nasser in the sport will be in violation of the jurisprudence and principles of the CoE,” they have stated.

“As such we ask the Commission to commence an appropriate investigation of this matter before considering the grant of a licence to Prince Nasser, that will include liaison with appropriate stakeholders and that Prince Nasser be refused a licence for his team at the UCI and financial contributions from him be refused.”

What will happen? We at CyclingTips are loathe to make presumptions. WorldTour candidates aren’t decided for several months, and plenty could happen between now and then.

However one look at the site of this year’s world road championship might offer an indication; the UCI has come under criticism for granting the world championships to Qatar, a country which has faced its own human rights abuses. That, in itself, is worrying.

Handing a WorldTour licence to a team with such big questions looming over it would be another matter entirely, and much more serious.

One would think — and we certainly hope — that the claims about Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa must be proven false before any such team would be green lighted.

Otherwise, the sport is asking for trouble.

Otherwise, the progress cycling has made in regaining some credibility would be knocked.

Otherwise, the battle between money and morality would favour the former, at the price of the latter.

Michael Ball believed there was no such thing as bad publicity, but this surely would be a bridge too far.

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