Bahrain Grand Prix is ‘force for good’, prince says

Note: This article is from the Guardian.



Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Bahrain Grand Prix is ‘force for good’, prince says, as cancellation calls grow” was written by Ian Black, Middle East editor, for The Guardian on Friday 20th April 2012 19.03 UTC

Bahrain’s showcase grand prix came under heavy pressure on Friday as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters confronted police during the final preparations for Sunday’s race and calls grew for it to be cancelled.

Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, called the event “a force for good” and warned that cancelling it would “empower extremists.” Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 chief executive, said it was not “in his power” to call it off. “It’s nothing to do with us,” he insisted.

But others said the high-profile sporting fixture should be stopped.

In Britain, Labour leader Ed Miliband urged the UK government to speak out. “Given the violence we have seen in Bahrain and given the human rights abuses, I don’t believe the grand prix should go ahead,” he said. I hope the government will make its view clear and say the same.”

The prime minister, David Cameron, responded: “Peaceful protest should be allowed to go ahead. But Bahrain is not Syria. There is a process of reform under way and this government backs that reform.” The problem, Bahraini and foreign critics argue, is that key reforms recommended by a high-powered commission appointed by King Hamad Al Khalifa have not been implemented.

Bahrain’s claim to be a bastion of freedom in the Gulf was further tarnished when non-sports journalists were turned back at the airport or denied visas. Prince Salman said that was not his decision, hinting at rifts with hardliners including his uncle, who has been prime minister since independence from Britain in 1971.

Last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled in the wake of the unprecedented protests that followed the Pearl Revolution, the Sunni-led monarchy’s short-lived experience of the Arab spring, at an estimated cost of 0m-0m (£500m). Around 50 people have been killed in unrest since then.

Heavy security was in place, with troops deployed around the Bahrain International Circuit, 25 miles from Manama and across the capital as the three-day event started. Al-Wefaq, the leading Shia opposition group, accused police of using excessive force, including birdshot rounds and teargas, to break up peaceful protests as well as mounting night police raids to arrest suspected protesters.

Sheikh Isa Qassim, the country’s leading Shia cleric, condemned the security crackdown, saying in a Friday sermon that it was “as if we are entering a war”.

In the hardest-hit villages such as Sitra, near the country’s oil refinery, residents barricaded the streets and deployed guards to raise the alarm in case of police raids. “Most of the people I know, like me, don’t sleep at home,” said one local activist.

Bahrain’s Youth Centre for Human Rights reported that 15 protesters were injured overnight in clashes with riot police who used pellet shot guns, teargas and stun grenades against protesters.

Pictures posted on the internet showed large crowds of demonstrators on Friday surrounded by clouds of teargas at a roundabout on Budaiya highway leading out of Manama. “We demand justice, equality, freedom, prohibition of state-run racial/sectarian discrimination, improving living standards, combatting corruption and implementing real reform,” read one protest banner. The protesters chanted slogans demanding democracy and the overthrow of King Hamad.

The government tried to put a positive spin on the race, releasing a poll conducted for the Bahrain Economic Development Board which found 77% support for the grand prix. It said: “Appropriate and responsible measures are being taken to maintain security throughout the event.” An official also complained of “unbalanced coverage”.

But the race is providing a golden opportunity for the opposition to advertise its grievances at a moment of rare and intense international attention. Fears are growing for the fate of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a jailed activist, who has been on hunger strike for more than two months and is said to be close to death.

The banned Bahrain Freedom Movement issued a statement in London. “The race between human values and evil is intensifying as the F1 prepares for its most controversial race in what has now become widely known as ‘Bloody Bahrain’,” it said. “The anger of the people has never been greater as scores of activists are swiftly rounded up, tortured and locked up by the forces of John Timoney (a former US police chief) and John Yates (the former Met police chief). Their aim is to forestall serious protests, disturbances or any kind of revolutionary act. In the past week more than 70 people have been arrested, tortured and detained for indefinite periods. The people, however, have become more defiant.”

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