Bahrain's Grand Prix smokescreen


Tomorrow’s controversial Formula 1 race is being used by the Bahraini government as a symbol of national unity, but the island state is still dangerously divided

FOR THOSE PLANNING to attend tomorrow’s Bahrain Grand Prix, the official Formula 1 website offers a tantalising taster. “As the wind picks up each evening and the early sunset takes hold, the place has a magical ‘Arabian Nights’ feel to it,” runs the breathless blurb. Contrasting the desert location of the Sakhir Circuit with the “bright lights, bars and exotic souqs” of Bahrain’s bustling capital, Manama, the website promises that visiting the race will be “a mix of two very contrasting experiences”. Attendees may get more than they bargained for, however, given that the Grand Prix takes place at a time of heightened tensions in the tiny Gulf island state, where tremors continue to be felt following a violent crackdown on anti-regime protests last spring.

Bahrain’s attempt at a peaceful uprising similar to what had taken place in Egypt and Tunisia was initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives when security forces moved on the Pearl roundabout in Manama where demonstrators had converged. The violence resulted in the cancellation of last year’s Grand Prix.

Since then, Bahrain has experienced sporadic unrest – activists say the total death toll now stands at about 70 – but the frequency and size of protests have increased as this year’s race approaches. Youths have clashed almost daily with riot police. Dozens have been rounded up and detained. Activists are planning “days of rage” rallies around tomorrow’s Grand Prix, an event the ruling Al Khalifa family see as an opportunity to show the world that all is well in their island kingdom. “Unified: One nation in celebration” is the slogan Bahrain has chosen for the race.

Bernie Ecclestone, the British owner of the commercial rights to Formula 1, said last week the event would go ahead because all was “quiet and peaceful” in Bahrain. “We don’t deal with the religion or the politics,” he said. “It’s not our business running the country.”

John Yates, a former senior British police officer hired to oversee reform of Bahrain’s police force, said he felt “safer than I have often felt in London”. He added: “Some people have recently told stories to media that never took place and give the impression that Bahrain is a war zone, and it’s not.”

But human-rights groups, including Amnesty International, have warned that the situation remains fraught in a country where many within the Shia majority have long chafed under the ruling Sunni minority. They accuse Bahrain of failing to fully implement recommendations by international rights experts commissioned by the government to investigate last year’s crackdown.

“With the world’s eyes on Bahrain as it prepares to host the Grand Prix, no one should be under any illusions that the country’s human rights crisis is over,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Middle East and north Africa deputy director. “The authorities are trying to portray the country as being on the road to reform, but we continue to receive reports of torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protests. Their reforms have only scratched the surface.”

In a report published this week, Amnesty noted that a 14-year-old boy and an 81-year-old woman had died after tear gas was fired into their homes in recent months. It added that investigations into allegations of torture and unlawful killings have been “shrouded in secrecy” and only nine low-ranking police officers have been put on trial.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group also cautioned this week that, “beneath a facade of normalisation, Bahrain is sliding towards another eruption of violence”. It noted that political talks had ground to a halt amid rising sectarian tensions, and warned of what it called “two potential time bombs” – including the hosting of the Grand Prix.

“The regime is trying to make the competition a symbol of national unity and is banking on it symbolising a return to stability. Instead it is underscoring deep divides and risks further inflaming the situation.”

THE SECOND“time bomb” relates to the fate of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent activist who once worked for the Dublin-based human rights organisation Front Line Defenders. Al-Khawaja, who also holds Danish citizenship, has been on hunger strike since February 8th to protest a life sentence he was given for his role in last year’s demonstrations. Rights groups have said his conviction was based on a confession made under duress, and no evidence was presented showing he had used or advocated violence during the protests.

Earlier this week, on the 70th day of his hunger strike, al-Khawaja, who was being fed intravenously, said he would consume only water from then on. Yesterday, however, his daughter Zeinab, who has also been arrested several times, said he was refusing all liquids from Thursday evening.

The International Crisis Group has said it is likely that his death would spark “a serious intensification in anti-regime activism”.

Al-Khawaja’s daughter Maryam, who admits she was torn when her father announced he was going on hunger strike, told The Irish Times he is determined to continue to the end. “Going on hunger strike can be controversial, but it is the last tool that my father has to protest against what is happening in his country,” she says. “Of course it is difficult for us, but I don’t consider this a time of mourning. I am very proud of my father; he is willing to give up his life if necessary to take a stand and bring attention to the situation in Bahrain.

“You can kill a person, but you can’t kill an idea. Even if we should lose my father in prison I will not consider it a loss, because I consider my father to be alive in the heart of every single protester and every person out there demanding freedom and justice.”

Al-Khawaja complains that the situation in Bahrain has, in her view, been “more or less ignored” compared with uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East. She describes it as an “inconvenient revolution” given that the Bahraini government is an ally of the US and Saudi Arabia, whose troops helped quash last year’s protests.

Some observers fret that if the current stalemate between the regime and the opposition drags on, the result will be a serious escalation in violence and the empowerment of hardliners on both sides. Maryam Al-Khawaja echoes those fears.

“We’ve been pushing and advising people to stay peaceful, but I know that you can only contain so much of their anger and this feeling of hopelessness,” she says. “So many people in Bahrain feel they have been ignored by the international community. They see all the attention on Syria – for good reason – but there’s nothing in terms of Bahrain. Many feel the international community is not going to do anything for us; we are on our own. That’s why it is very difficult to persuade people to stay peaceful, because you don’t have anything else to offer them.”

The Bahrain Grand Prix, which attracted 100,000 visitors and generated an estimated €375 million in revenues when it was last held, two years ago, is welcomed by some in the country, who point out losses to tourism and investment sustained as a result of last year’s turmoil.

Bahrain’s mainstream opposition, led by the Wefaq party, says it is not against the race taking place. But other fringe groups opposed to the event say they will stage protests inside the Formula 1 circuit, if they can, in a bid for international publicity. Earlier this month youth protesters, who operate under the banner of the anti-monarchy February 14 Youth Coalition, warned they would consider participants, sponsors and spectators as regime allies and declared that they would accept no blame for “any violent reaction” during the race.

Watching from Dublin will be Prof Damian McCormack, an orthopaedic surgeon who has campaigned on behalf of three Bahraini medics, all of whom trained at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, who are facing charges following the protests last spring. “I am deeply disturbed that the race is going ahead,” he says. “It gives credibility to the regime’s propaganda . . . My fear is that the race will be hijacked by radicals on both sides to create confrontation.”

He is also concerned about Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. “If he dies I think the country will become more violent, more polarised.”

Bahrain, McCormack argues, needs a solution guided by the principles of basic human rights, but its rulers appear unwilling to adapt to the changed realities that have emerged after last year’s aborted revolution.

“Unfortunately, it is hard to treat a patient who refuses to accept that he’s sick.”