Tens of Thousands in Bahrain: Grand Prix Is Racing on Our Blood

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Common Dreams

Tens of Thousands in Bahrain: Grand Prix Is Racing on Our Blood

Protester death latest casualty in Bahraini crackdown on dissent

by
Common Dreams staff

Protesters, wearing T-shirts with an image of Bahraini human-rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, shout anti-government slogans during a rally by the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, in Budaiya, west of Manama, yesterday. (Photograph: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

Protests are intensifying ahead of Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix on Sunday as calls for the race to be canceled grow. Friday saw tens of thousands marching to demand democracy and an end to King Hamad's rule. And one protester allegedly beaten and killed by riot police was found today in the continued crackdown on dissent.

A protest banner read: “We demand justice, equality, freedom, prohibition of state-run racial/sectarian discrimination, improving living standards, combating corruption and implementing real reform.”

Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One's commercial rights holder, dismissed calls for the lucrative race to be called off and said Bahrain was "quiet and peaceful."

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that "there is a strong feeling the three day Grand Prix is being used by Bahrain to improve its public image, with the help of some British and American PR firms."

Protesters plan to continue to use the increased media attention to their country with "days of rage" to highlight their calls for democracy.

* * *

Al Jazeera Blogs: Deadly protests mar Bahrain Grand Prix

Bahrain now has its first protester death of the F1 weekend. The man's body was found lying on a roof in the village of Shakhura, his face to the sky.

Around his neck rested a respirator mask, the necessary protection for anyone choosing to do battle with Bahrain's security forces amidst the clouds of choking tear gas.

Al-Wafaq, Bahrain's main Shia political group, says he was called Salah, and he was 37 years old.

Shakhura is just a kilometre or so from the scene of Friday's large scale anti-government protests.

It's still unclear whether he died in the clashes that broke up that demonstration, or whether he was killed in the night of village skirmishes that followed.

There is an even more sinister rumour circulating: that he was snatched by police, died in their custody, and his body was dumped on the roof in the hours of darkness.

But regardless of how Salah died, the claim of many Shia protesters that Formula One is racing on their blood becomes harder to argue against.

Bahrain's crown prince took a tour of the F1 paddock on Friday, and insisted the event would go ahead.

According to Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa "political parties across the whole spectrum, both conservative and opposition, have welcomed the race." Cancelling it, he said, would only empower "extremists".

Almost anywhere you go in Bahrain this weekend, the official message looks down at you from billboards and hoardings: the word "Unified", with the F1 logo making up the "f" and the "i" of that slogan.

But other sights belie the branding.

Razor wire has been laid out around many of Manama's satellite Shia villages, scorch marks on the roads are evidence of nights of violent clashes, and armed police are everywhere.

Shia opposition to the ruling Sunni minority and the absence of democracy has been claiming lives for well over a year now.

Before the tear gas sent me and the demonstrators running at Friday's big rally, I spoke to Jumana.

The enthusiastic and obviously strong-willed 16-year-old girl appeared by my side and offered to be my guide.

We talked about why the men and women were in separate groups ("Hey I don't really agree with that, but that's our society" she said), and I asked her what it was she wanted. Her answer was given with a broad smile: "Freedom, Equality, and dignity. Nothing more."

Further protests from Bahrain's restive Shia population are planned this weekend, including one near the Sakhir race track on Sunday.

Violence will almost certainly accompany them. Bernie Ecclestone, F1's ruling king, has insisted from the get-go that Bahrain is a safe country to race in.

If Salah could still speak, he would probably tell you it's not such a safe country to live in.

* * *

Irish Times: Thousands protest over Bahrain grand prix

Bahrain's showcase grand prix came under heavy pressure yesterday as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters confronted police during the final preparations for tomorrow’s race and calls grew for it to be cancelled. [...]

Heavy security was in place, with troops deployed around the Bahrain International Circuit, 40km (25 miles) from Manama, and across the capital as the three-day event started.

Al-Wefaq, the leading Shia opposition group, accused police of using excessive force, including birdshot rounds and teargas, to break up peaceful protests as well as mounting night police raids to arrest suspected protesters.

Sheikh Isa Qassim, the country’s leading Shia cleric, condemned the security crackdown, saying in a sermon yesterday it was “as if we are entering a war”. [...]

Pictures posted on the internet showed large crowds of demonstrators yesterday surrounded by clouds of teargas at a roundabout on Budaiya highway leading out of Manama. “We demand justice, equality, freedom, prohibition of state-run racial/sectarian discrimination, improving living standards, combating corruption and implementing real reform,” read one protest banner.

The protesters chanted slogans demanding democracy and the overthrow of King Hamad.

* * *

The Guardian: Bahrain protester found dead on eve of grand prix

An investigation has been launched in Bahrain after an anti-government protester was found dead following clashes with riot police on the eve of the controversial Formula One grand prix.

Bahraini authorities confirmed on Saturday that the dead man was Salah Abbas Habib. It said in a statement that the 36-year-old had suffered a wound to his left side and the case was being treated as a homicide. [...]

Dozens of armoured vehicles have been deployed on the main road leading to the Bahrain International circuit in Sakhir and in the capital, Manama, after protesters promised "days of rage" against the Formula One event. Activists say barbed wire has been installed near some parts of the road.

The race has caused anger among the mostly Shia Muslim community, who are protesting against the Sunni ruling elite and demanding democratic reform. Protesters have accused the Bahraini government of using the event to deflect attention from democracy issues in the country, and they have vowed to use it to highlight their cause.

"The government are using the Formula One race to serve their PR campaign," said rights activist Nabeel Rajab. "It's not turning out the way they wanted."

Race organisers have refused calls to cancel the event and Bahrain's crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, called it "a force for good". He warned that cancelling it would "empower extremists". Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone has said security fears are nonsense.

Opposition leaders said about 95 protest organisers had been arrested in night raids over the past week and about 50 people have died since the unrest began in February.

In London on Saturday around 20 people staged a demonstration against the grand prix outside the Formula One office in Knightsbridge.

The human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who attended the protest organised by the campaign group Justice for Bahrain, said: "I would appeal to Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to withdraw from the Bahrain grand prix. By participating, they'll be giving respectability to the regime. They'll be sending out the message that it's business as usual.

"There can be no normal sporting relations with an abnormal regime that is killing its own people."

* * *

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism: Bahrain: little change since ‘brutal crackdown’ as Formula 1 begins

Bird shot, tear gas and truncheon-wielding riot police are not the normal accompaniments to a Grand Prix weekend. Heavy with corporate sponsorship and shielded from the ongoing riots and bloodshed, the most wealthy of motorsports has arrived in the tiny archipelago state of Bahrain.

This Persian Gulf Kingdom has been shaken by more than a year protests and civil disorder that threatened to dethrone a fifty year old dynasty. At least 35 people died last spring in events that caused the cancellation of the 2011 Grand Prix.

Calls for the race to be cancelled this year too have not been heeded. Bernie Ecclestone, who owns the rights to the sport, declared Bahrain was ‘quiet and peaceful’ as the teams and Bahraini government debated cancelling the event. Bahrain assured all the drivers and teams would be safe. But members of racing team Force India have already opted to leave Bahrain after they had a brush with some protesters carrying petrol bombs.

F1 is a multi-million pound business with highly lucrative sponsorship and broadcast rights. To cancel a race would be quite a financial hit. Ecclestone said F1 is honouring an obligation in holding the race in the Kingdom, passing the buck to the Bahraini government.

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