Manama: Amnesty International on Thursday accused Bahrain of using this weekend's Formula One race to "sportswash" its image, amid an intense crackdown on political dissent in the Gulf kingdom.
"Beneath the glamour of the F1, there is a far more sinister side to Bahrain, revealing the country as a deeply repressive state where anyone critical of the government can be jailed merely for posting a tweet," said Amnesty's Middle East director Samah Hadid.
"Instead of just "sportswashing" its image and glossing over its dismal human rights record through high speed sport, the Bahraini government should immediately repeal laws that criminalise freedom of expression and fast track the release of all prisoners of conscience," she said in a statement.
Bahrain, a key US ally located between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been gripped by bouts of unrest since 2011, when authorities cracked down on Shiite-led protests demanding political reform.
Hundreds of protesters have since been jailed or stripped of their nationality, including athletes. Bahrain claims Iran trains and backs demonstrators in order to topple the Manama government. Iran denies the accusation.
Responding to Amnesty's criticism, the Bahraini government said it takes "allegations of human rights violations very seriously". "No one in Bahrain is detained for his or her political views," it said in a statement. "The Bahraini constitution guarantees and fully protects the right to freedom of opinion and expression."
The second Grand Prix of 2019 opens in Manama on Friday and runs through Sunday. Global rights groups have stepped up pressure on the tiny monarchy in the run-up to the Grand Prix.
More than a dozen global rights groups and trade unions, including Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation, on Wednesday urged Formula One organisers to press the Bahraini government to release activists jailed for criticising the race.