DUBAI (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters in Bahrain are planning “days of rage” directed at this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix, while security forces have rounded up dozens of activists in a clampdown on the opposition in the Gulf Arab nation.
Bahrain has been in turmoil since a democracy movement erupted last year after uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The island state’s revolution was initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives but youths still clash daily with riot police and thousands are turning out for opposition rallies as the motor race approaches.
“Boycott F1 in Bahrain,” reads a graffiti message daubed on a wall in a village outside the capital, Manama, next to a painted image of a red Ferrari race car. “You will race on the blood of martyrs.”
Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family had to cancel last year’s race because of the uprising, but its return on April 20-22 is a chance to tell the world that all is back to normal - which could work if protests and clashes are kept to Shi‘ite districts and do not reach major highways or the capital.
Bernie Ecclestone, the colourful British owner of the commercial rights to Formula One, said last week the race would go ahead because all was “quiet and peaceful” in Bahrain, which paid last year’s hosting fee of an estimated $40 million despite cancelling the race due to the conflict.
The Bahrain race, part of a 20-event worldwide season that has revenues of $2 billion, drew 100,000 visitors and generated an estimated half a billion dollars in spending when it was last held two years ago. Formula One, the business arm of one of the world’s most watched sports, is expected to be floated on the Singapore stock exchange later this year.
Race organisers say “the security situation in Bahrain is suitable for the staging of a major sporting event”. John Yates, a former senior British police officer hired by Bahrain to oversee reform of its police force, said he felt “safer than I have often felt in London”.
The official Formula One website, describing the Sakhir Circuit as “first-rate”, tells visitors: “As the wind picks up each evening and the early sunset takes hold, the place has a magical ‘Arabian Nights’ feel to it.”
Amnesty International said in a report this week that dozens remained in jail after unfair military trials for their role in mass protests a year ago while action was needed to address what the human rights group called discrimination against majority Shi‘ites.
“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 opposition, led by the Wefaq party, say they do not oppose the race and their protests - licensed by a government under U.S. pressure to allow more space for dissent - will focus on demands for political reforms in a country where the Khalifa family dominates government and the economy.
Formula One was originally brought to Bahrain in 2004 as part of economic reforms championed by Crown Prince Salman - whom Wefaq continues to bet on as a man to deliver political reform - to encourage foreign investment and jobs for Bahrainis.
“We think Formula One is a secondary issue compared to the question of long-term rights. What we care about is our demands. We don’t want to ruin the projects’ of others,” said senior Wefaq member Sayed Hadi al-Mousawi.
But he predicted protesters would try to hold demonstrations near or inside Sakhir, which lies south of the capital and away from most residential areas.
“There are hundreds or maybe thousands who will get there and raise slogans, and they don’t care if they are taken to jail. People have reached the point of no fear,” Mousawi said.
Thirty-five people died during a month of protests when the uprising first began last year, but activists say the ongoing violence has taken the toll to around 70.
Activists say heavy use of tear gas has caused many deaths. The government disputes the causes of death and their attribution to the strife, and accuses youths of endangering police lives with petrol bombs.
Opposition figures outside the political parties and who are opposed to the race say they will stage protests inside the F1 circuit if they can, hoping to catch international attention.
They say they will host daily events, including a march in Manama on Thursday at a location to be announced, culminating in a country-wide “day of rage” on both Saturday and Sunday.
“They plan activities at the track but they have not announced what. For sure there will be something,” said Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
Activists opposed to the race point out that some Bahrain International Circuit employees say they suffered torture during the period of martial law that ended last June. Bahrain commissioned a report by international rights experts which revealed systematic abuse during the crackdown.
Youth protesters, who operate under the banner of the anti-monarchy February 14 Youth Coalition, have burned some Formula One advertising promotional material in recent days.
Protesters managed to make their point during an international air fair in January by burning enough tyres around the island to create a cloud of smoke visible at the event.
Fear of violent clashes has increased with recent attacks by apparent Sunni vigilantes on a chain of supermarkets owned by a Shi‘ite family. Some bank branches have been targeted by unknown men, and a homemade bomb injured seven policemen.
This week two dissidents in London, one of them the son of a jailed opposition leader, unfurled protest banners from the roof of the Bahraini embassy in London after scaling the walls.
A deterioration in the health of a hunger striker, also jailed for his role in leading last year’s protests, could further inflame the situation.
Activists say police have arrested at least 90 people in recent days as part of a crackdown to make sure the capital’s major districts remain calm for visiting sports fans, though well-known protest organisers have been left alone.
“Now what they are doing is entering villages every night and arresting organising activists. They want to keep the villages silent during this period,” said rights activist Muhafda. Police were unable to confirm arrest numbers.
Sports fans heading down the main highway out of Manama to the circuit will likely notice the heavy security presence around the Pearl Roundabout traffic junction - focal point of last year’s protests which remains closed to prevent a repeat.
Though life in Manama’s main commercial, residential and tourist districts appears detached from the nightly battles, tear gas often floats over from conflict zones pocketed around the capital.
The turmoil in Bahrain, though the island is small, has wide regional ramifications. Saudi Arabia sent troops to back the government’s crackdown last year, while Iranian media has taken up the cause of the cause of the Shi‘ite opposition.
Washington, which maintains its Fifth Fleet in Manama, has backed the ruling family, but called on the government to enter a reform dialogue with Wefaq.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Additional reporting by Keith Weir in London; Editing by Giles Elgood