“Days of Rage” in Bahrain as F1 race draws near

Protesters calling for human rights and civil liberties march before F1 race

By Nicholas Nehamas

Formula One drivers Lewis Hamilton (L) and Nico Rosberg are all smiles at a press conference before the Bahrain Grand Prix. But many Bahrainis wish they had stayed away. Activists have called for a “Days of Rage” campaign in the build up to the race, which they believe the government is using to promote a false vision of national unity. (Reuters/Steve Crisp)

Tensions are high in Bahrain ahead of the country’s Formula One Grand Prix Sunday.  Thousands of protesters marched in the streets of a village outside the capital, Manama, on Wednesday, calling for the downfall of the regime. Some clashes have been violent as riot police disperse demonstrators with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and, occasionally, live ammunition.

Over the past year, over 50 people have died in this small Gulf nation since an uprising began against the Sunni monarchy. Bahrain is 70 percent Shi’ite, but the opposition Al Wefaq party and local activists say their struggle is about a lack of basic human rights and civil liberties, not religion. The government accuses the protestors of mindless violence, claiming they are the tool of Iranian-backed religious extremists.

Formula One racing is extremely popular with both the royal family and the general population. The most recent Grand Prix in 2010 drew 100,000 visitors and turned a $500 million profit. Last year’s race had to be canceled due to security fears but F1 and the government show no signs of backing down this time around. F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone called Bahrain “a quiet and peaceful” place. His organization has collected a $40 million fee for the race. Meanwhile, the government is promoting a slogan (“UniF1ed”) to show that life here has returned to normal.

That depends on your definition of normal. Normal should mean quietly paying respects at a funeral. But Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, going to a funeral on what Al Jazeera called “a rare visit” to the opposition stronghold of Sanabis on Wednesday, found himself surrounded by a group of protestors. They chanted the famous slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people demand the downfall of the regime.” (See the video below)

In Manama, 200 protestors were dispersed by riot police after gathering in the capital’s main shopping area and overwhelming a cultural exhibition organized for the race. The demonstration was unusual as most anti-government rallies are confined to the Shi’ite dominated villages which surround the capital.

Protesters react after police used a flashbang sound grenade during an anti-government rally demanding the release of human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja in Manama on April 18, 2012. Police used sound grenades to disperse dozens of demonstrators demanding the release of Al-Khawaja, who is on a hunger strike, and protesting against the Formula One race in the coming weekend. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Also, in the town of Jidhafs, a branch of the Bahraini national bank was firebombed twice in one week by unknown assailants. Last week, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the chest by police at a funeral for a slain activist. The boy is in critical condition.  And in a worrying development for F1, two members of the Force India racing team left the country after a petrol bomb exploded near a car they were attempting to drive through a protest.

Despite the “Days of Rage” leading up to the race, it appears F1 will still wave its checkered flag. Activists insist they have nothing against racing or F1 drivers.

Sports journalists are being allowed into the country but foreign correspondents from Reuters and other organizations have reportedly been denied visas.

You can catch all the details at the Al Jazeera story linked to in Straight to the Source.

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