Crackdown restricts protests at Bahrain grand prix


BAHRAIN’S CONTROVERSIAL grand prix passed off without major incident yesterday – though few were focusing on the race that Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel won.

Tight security at checkpoints on the way to the track caused tailbacks as the authorities tried to curtail attempts by protesters to bring their pro-democracy demands into the heart of the event.

Activists said a group of women still managed to stage a brief demonstration at the circuit before being arrested. They were calling for the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, an imprisoned human rights activist who has been on hunger strike for more than 70 days.

Journalists and spectators reported that numbers at the grandstands were low. Organisers said 28,000 people attended the race that was staged in the isolated desert south of Bahrain.

Elsewhere on the island, a security lockdown was launched to keep protesters off the streets.

“There are more police than protesters – every time the kids come out, the tear gas flies,” said one witness in Sanabis, a restive area in the capital where youths had planned to march on the site of last year’s demonstrations, the now-destroyed Pearl Roundabout.

The majority Shia population has led pro-democracy protests since last February, bearing the brunt of a security crackdown launched last March by the minority Sunni-led government.

Since then, the authorities have largely managed to keep the protests confined to Shia villages. Yesterday was no different. Witnesses said armoured vehicles and police SUVs patrolled in and around the villages, flashpoints for daily outbursts of violence.

The show of force followed the discovery of a dead protester on Saturday morning. His body was not returned to his family in time for them to bury him yesterday, according to activists.

The interior ministry said it was investigating the incident, pledging to bring to justice whoever was responsible.

The government and its supporters declared the day a success.

Loyalists took to Twitter to congratulate the authorities on hosting the race, which went ahead despite international censure at holding the sporting spectacle amid the unrest.

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who brought Formula One to Bahrain in 2004, has argued that hosting the event, which had been cancelled last year, will allow the country to start a process of national reconciliation.

But many opposition activists argue that the race has granted the government legitimacy as repression continues despite Manama’s claims that it is reforming.

Others have supported the race, arguing that it keeps international attention on the unrest in Bahrain, often referred to as the forgotten uprising of the Arab spring.

Anonymous, the international hacking activist organisation, claimed to have compromised the F1 and Bahrain-related websites, publishing ticket sales details to protest at the government’s “oppression”.

The government has pledged to implement security and judicial reforms after an independent commission criticised it for excessive use of force and systematic use of torture.

But Amnesty International last week said Manama had failed to deliver real change. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)