Grand prix should not go ahead amid violence on streets and a hunger strike by jailed activist, opponents say
Protesters, human rights groups and MPs have called for the race, due on April 22, to be called off. They say it is unacceptable to go ahead with the grand prix while riot police are using teargas and live bullets against demonstrators, one of whom was shot dead last week.
The country's Sunni leadership is determined to hold the event. It argues that the revolt by the kingdom's Shia majority, – which began nearly 14 months ago and caused last year's grand prix to be abandoned, has mostly fizzled out.
In the run-up to the race, opposition supporters have plastered posters on walls and lambasted Formula One drivers via social media. "We don't want Formula One in our country," an activist, Ali Mohammed, told Associated Press during a recent rally in the capital, Manama. "They are killing us every day with teargas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent? No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race."
On Friday the British MP Richard Burden echoed a call by the former world champion Damon Hill for Formula One's governing body, the FIA, to think again. Burden acknowledged that some among the country's rulers were seeking genuine reform. "It is also true that not all the problems in Bahrain come from one side," he said.
But he pointed out that 45 people had been killed in Bahrain since February 2011, with police recently teargassing hundreds of protesters at a cemetery. "Bahrain is nothing like as bad as the terrible situation in Syria," he said. "And F1 teams do race in other countries with unenviable human rights records. But that does not mean it is right for F1 to collude in presenting to the outside world a cocooned picture of normality at the Bahrain international circuit, when what is likely to be going on just few miles outside the circuit could be very different indeed. "
Bahrain's Shia majority is demanding rights and opportunities equal to those of the Sunni minority that rules Bahrain. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights to the grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces. Although the F1 race is the island's premier international event, many Bahrainis see it as a regime vanity project.
Last year's race was cancelled after the authorities imposed martial law and launched a punishing crackdown on dissent. Hundreds have been tried on anti-state charges in a special security court, including more than 100 athletes, coaches and sports officials. Dozens have been sentenced to prison terms, including a prominent human rights activist who is serving a life sentence for his role in the uprising.
The activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been on hunger strike for more than 50 days. Opposition supporters rally every day for his release, often carrying his picture along with posters calling for the cancellation of the F1 race. Human rights organisations have warned Bahraini authorities that al-Khawaja may die and appealed to those involved in the race to stay away.
"It is impossible to imagine that the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead if Abdulhadi al-Khawaja dies on hunger strike in prison," said Mary Lawlor, the executive director of an Ireland-based rights organisation, Front Line Defenders. "The Bahraini authorities clearly want to present an image of business as usual but their seeming indifference to the plight of Abdulhadi risks tragic consequences."
In February, an opposition group that has been the driving force of the year-long uprising warned the F1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone, against staging the Bahrain race "at a time when children are being killed in the streets". The grand prix's return to the Gulf kingdom would "imprint it with the image of death and human rights violations", the group said.
Race organisers, however, remain committed to staging the grand prix, which draws a worldwide TV audience of around 100 million in 187 countries. The annual race has been Bahrain's most profitable international event since 2004, when it became the first Arab country to stage a grand prix.
The F1 world champions Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher have backed the decision to go ahead with the Bahrain GP. Ecclestone has also dismissed opposition to the race , describing it as "all nonsense" after lunching with Bahrain international circuit executives in London last week. "Of course the race is going to happen," he said. "No worries at all."