Police, Activists Clash in Bahrain Ahead of Formula One Return

Posted April 19th, 2012 at 11:45 am (UTC-5)
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Tensions mounted between government forces and opposition activists in Bahrain on Thursday, ahead of the controversial return of the Formula One Grand Prix to the Gulf kingdom.

A firebomb exploded near members of India's race team late Wednesday as police and protesters clashed near the capital, Manama.

No one was hurt in the explosion. However, witnesses say police fired tear gas and birdshot at protesters who denounced the government and urged Formula One to cancel the race.

Last year's race was postponed and later scrubbed because of demonstrations.

Protests led by Bahrain's Shi'ite majority have erupted on an almost daily basis since last year. Demonstrators have been demanding a greater role in the Sunni-led government.

Some opposition groups have called for “days of rage” to coincide with the Formula One race, which runs Friday through Sunday.

The government has been unwavering in moving ahead with race plans.

Bahrain International Circuit chairman Zayed Al Zayani blamed “armchair observers” who did not have the facts for igniting a controversy over hosting the event. In a recent interview, he also said “neutral parties” who had visited Bahrain and investigated the situation were being ignored.

Last week, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone said “There is nothing happening” in Bahrain. He said he knew people who lived there and “it's all quiet and peaceful.”

But members of the Shi'ite community and human rights groups say the go-ahead gives the impression gives that human rights conditions have significantly improved since last year. They say activists remain in unlawful detention and the government has done little to address the concerns of Shi'ites seeking greater rights.

Bahrain Center for Human Rights President Nabeel Rajab says a majority of Bahrainis think Formula One's comeback sends out the wrong message.

“They see it as a negative message sent by [the] Formula One company to the Bahraini people who are fighting, who are dying, who are detained, who are being tortured for just calling for democracy and human rights.”

Amnesty International's USA executive director, Suzanne Nossel, says conditions have not changed enough since last year to warrant Bahrain hosting the high-profile race.

“We have grave concern that by having a high-profile international sporting event that it could send the wrong message — one of obliviousness on the part of Formula One and spectators to these very grave and ongoing abuses that are happening in Bahrain.”

Amnesty International released a report this week detailing what it calls “unnecessary and excessive force” against demonstrators. It says at least 60 people have been killed during protests since February 2011.

Nossel tells VOA it appears Bahrain's rulers are not serious about reforms.

“They are not truly committed, is my sense, to creating an environment in that country where there is respect for freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right of political parties and the opposition to organize and mobilize in the way that a human rights respecting country would do.”

Jasim Husain, of the main opposition Wefaq Party, agrees. He also says his country's Sunni rulers have been slow to enact reforms because there is no real pressure for them to do so.

“The authorities, they think the problem is over. They can get away with it because there is no real international pressure on them. But, certainly that is a terrible mistake. The country is not functioning properly.”

For the government, the Bahrain Formula One is a money-maker. The “Business in Bahrain” publication says the 2010 race supported up to 3,000 jobs, attracted more than 100,000 visitors and brought in almost $300 million.

It also gives the tiny kingdom bragging rights. In 2004, Bahrain became the first Middle East country to host a race on the Grand Prix circuit.

Former Formula One world champ Damon Hill spoke out against Bahrain's 2011 race and initially voiced reservations about this year's run. But, late last week, Hill changed his position and gave the race his approval.

He said no one is “under any illusions” about Bahrain's situation but he felt that human rights groups were able to “have their cases heard.”