Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa is expected to unveil Bahrain's new cycling team at Tour De France next month, angering human rights activists
A Bahraini prince accused of torturing prisoners during the country's 2011 uprising is behind plans to create a professional cycling team to compete in the UCI WorldTour, to the dismay of human rights campaigners.
Prince Nasser Bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who was stripped of diplomatic immunity by a British court in 2014 amid allegations of torture, launched the new Bahrain Cycling Team on Monday.
Speculation has been running rife that Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali will be its lead rider. The Giro d'Italia, along with the Tour De France and the Vuelta a Espana make up the main tours of elite male cycling.
The team is expected to apply for a UCI WorldTour licence to compete in major events, and may be officially unveiled at the Tour De France later this month.
This comes after Nasser posted a photograph of himself in branded team clothing on Instagram with the words: “Bahrain Cycling Team will inspire, race hard and look elegant.”
The UCI WorldTour told MEE it was aware of news reports concerning the new cycling team, but that it had not received a licence request.
Human rights campaigners have condemned the move and been quick to point out that Nasser was accused of abusing prisoners in the wake of the 2011 pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. Nasser also reportedly appeared on state TV in 2011, threatening protesters and telling them they had “nowhere to escape”.
Nasser and his family deny the allegations as last year the Bahraini embassy in London said they were “entirely false” and “politically-motivated”. It added that British police had “previously declined to investigate Prince Nasser on the basis of the insufficiency of the evidence against him”.
The British Crown Prosecution Service said the High Court ruling to deny Nasser immunity was "academic," because in order for charges to be filed, police would have to open an investigation and their decision to not do so was not based on Nasser’s immunity status.
Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, told Middle East Eye: “The UCI WorldTour will suffer severe reputational damage if they admit Prince Nasser's team to the sport. Those who allege to [have been] tortured by Prince Nasser continue to languish unjustly in Bahrain's notorious prisons.”
According to Cycling Week, the prince, who is also president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, will fund the new cycling team with a budget of more than $16.5m.
The royal is a keen sportsman and triathlete. Last month, he competed in the Royal Windsor Endurance Race while he was in the UK to celebrate the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth.
Nasser is a key member of the Khalifa ruling family of Bahrain, which was criticised this week after a court extended the prison sentence of opposition politician Sheikh Ali Salman to nine years from four.
On Wednesday, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression condemned the judgement, after similar concerns were raised by the EU and the US State Department, which called for charges against Salman to be dropped.