Despite wide-scale protests attended by thousands, Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa has announced that he backs the Grand Prix race that is to be held this Sunday. The race can be a “force for good” as “it unites many people from many different religious backgrounds, sects and ethnicities,” the Crown Prince said during a visit to the race track on Friday.
Bernie Ecclestone, the chief executive of Formula One, is blaming the media for the controversy that has arisen about the race. But Ecclestone need only take a good look in Bahrain’s streets to see that the protest over holding the race cannot be made light of.
Bahrain’s government and business community say the race will give a much needed boost to the Gulf island kingdom’s economy, which has been slumping in the wake of the anti-government protests that have been ongoing since last February. Then, masses of protesters took over the central Pearl Roundabout in the capital of Manama, only to be violently dispersed after the Bahrain government called in troops from Saudi Arabia, imposed martial law until the middle of June and arrested hundreds, including doctors and nurses who had been tending to the wounded. But protesters, mostly Shi’ite Muslims who have long described discrimination in the Sunni-ruled country, have continued on a near daily basis.
On Friday, riot police used tear gas against thousands of protesters walking along a road from Budaiya west of Manama, While police at first stood back, they fired stun grenades and tear gas when about 100 protesters attempted to march to the site of now-demolished Pearl Roundabout. Demonstators called for the “overthrow of the regime” and demanded the release of prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who has been on a hunger strike since February 8. According to activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, his daughter, Al-Khawaja called on Friday morning to ask for an urgent visit by his lawyer to write his will. Zainab Al-Khawaja also writes that he has stopped drinking water.
Some of the Formula One teams seem to have been made wary by the protests. The BBC says that the Force India team, due to wanting to return to their hotel before dark, missed a second practice on Friday. At a clash between protesters and police on Wednesday, four of the Force India team’s mechanics only just avoided being hit by Molotov cocktails. On Thursday, a bus with 12 mechanics from the Sauber team pulled over to the side of the road on seeing a burning bottle and “masked men running towards their lane.”
A number of British politicians including Labour leader Ed Milliband have called for the race to be cancelled. Prime Minister David Cameron has said the matter should be left to Formula One. Bahrain is a U.S. ally and hosts the Navy’s Fifth Fleet; the Obama administration could also be more insistent that the Bahraini government implement recommendations called for by an independent commission following accusations of human rights abuses.
In a recently issued report, Amnesty International has stated simply that “not much has changed” in the year since the protests, during which more than 50 died and hundreds were wounded. Hundreds remain imprisoned for protest-related activities.
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