Panama City Race Organizers, Police Won't Scrutinize Bahraini Royals Accused Of Abuse

Nov 1, 2013

(L to R) Khaled Bin Hamad al-Khalifa and Nasser Bin Hamad al-Khalifa
Credit Bahrain Center for Human Rights

A human rights organization which advocates for people in the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain is raising concerns about a triathlon taking place in Panama City this weekend. Two members of the Bahraini royal family who are accused of torturing protestors in their home country are slated to take part in the Panhandle race, but police say they're not taking any special precautions.

A spokesman for Tampa-based triathlon corporation Ironman declined a taped interview Thursday, but said he was aware brothers Nasser and Khalid bin Hamad al-Khalifa were entered in the company’s Panama City competition. In June of 2012, London’s Guardian newspaper cited a report from the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights saying the two engaged in a series of human rights abuses in their native country, including beating athletes who, during the Arab Spring, advocated for democratic rule of Bahrain.  This week, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain urged Ironman to bar the two from the competition, but to no avail. The group’s spokeswoman, Rachel Peterson, says race organizers are sending the wrong message.

“They don’t have the time to look into every single person, but now that this has been brought to their attention, we believe they should act upon it," Peterson says. "Not only because they have the responsibility to do so, but because as an athletic organization, not only are these people responsible for torturing protestors, they’re responsible for torturing athletes. That’s not exactly in the vein of fair play or sportsmanship.”

But Elizabeth Ricci, a Tallahassee immigration lawyer, says if law enforcement singles the two out for additional scrutiny, the move could backfire.

“They need to tread very carefully because there are civil rights violations possible and of course there’s diplomatic and political fallout if it’s not handled correctly,” she says.

Peterson’s group also accuses the sheikhs of assaulting protestors when the pair competed in an Ironman event in Berlin. Because there’s a sizable Bahraini population in nearby Alabama, all sides agree there’s a chance demonstrators will show up at Saturday’s race in Panama City. But even Peterson says she thinks violence is unlikely.

“I do not think that physical harm is going to come to people in Panama City,” she says.

After Florida Public Radio spoke with Peterson, her group sent a letter to the Panama City Police alerting the department about the sheikhs’ participation in the race. At the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, spokeswoman Ruth Corley said she was aware they would be in town, but the members of the Bahraini royal family would not be receiving any additional attention.