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Opposition dismayed as Grand Prix is back on track

Formula One's governing body voted on Friday to reinstate the Bahrain Grand Prix after it was cancelled last March due to political unrest. But human rights activists received the news with anger.


As protesters in Bahrain took to the streets on Friday, braving teargas and rubber bullets, Formula One's governing body controversially allowed Bahrain to reschedule its Grand Prix after the race was cancelled due to deadly anti-government protests in March.

Following a meeting in Barcelona Friday, the World Motor Sport Council agreed that the Bahrain Grand Prix - which was supposed to be held on March 13 - could be postponed to October 30.

At the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the reaction was quick.

“This is a very disappointing decision,” said Nabeel Rajab, BCHR chief, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Bahraini capital of Manama.

“It’s Friday, people are protesting. They are burying two people who died from government repression and on the same day, they are receiving the Formula One news. People will be very angry,” said Rajab, who is also deputy secretary-general of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.

Human rights groups, such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), have campaigned against reinstating the race. HRW said the massive Bahraini government crackdown on protests should weigh in the decision.

An online petition against the race, titled “No F1 in brutal Bahrain,” had more than 300,000 signatories on Friday evening.

But in some parts of Manama – and certainly in official Bahraini circles - the World Motor Sport Council’s decision was cheered.

“Mabrook,” tweeted Sheikh Fawaz al-Khalifa, head of the country’s Information Affairs Authority, using the Arabic word for “congratulations” in the first official confirmation of the news. “Bahrain will host f1.”

The decision followed a massive public relations campaign in Bahrain that saw posters across Manama, proclaiming: "Let's bring Formula One back - together we can."

A disgruntled Shi'ite majority

But Bahrain is a deeply divided country these days. In the tiny Gulf kingdom – the world’s smallest Arab nation – lives a majority Shi'ite population that has been governed by the Sunni al-Khalifa family for centuries.

Bahrain's Shi'ites have a long list of grievances against its rulers. Although they make-up about 70 percent of the population, Shi'ites are denied proper political representation in the country's largely gerrymandered, rubber-stamp parliament.

Away from the gleaming skyscrapers of Manama - where wealthy Bahrainis and skilled expatriates work - impoverished Shi'ite villages are home to unemployed youths who complain that the country’s top posts and prime housing allocations are reserved for elite Bahrainis, or non-nationals.

A major Shi'ite grievance has been the al-Khalifa family's mistrust of and disinclination to employ Shi'ites in the country's security services. Bahrain’s police force is largely comprised of foreign Sunnis from countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Jordan.

Those grievances were exacerbated in March, when Bahrain's Sunni rulers invited 1,500 troops from a Saudi-led Gulf force to help suppress the unrest that had gripped the country since protests broke out.

Even though the emergency law was lifted earlier this week, the Saudi-led Gulf force remains in the country.

Dismissed from the job for participating in demonstrations

In the latest addition to the long list of their grievances, Bahraini Shi'ites are complaining about the dismissal of hundreds of professionals suspected of taking part in pro-democracy protests earlier this year.

A government official told Reuters that around 1,200 people had been dismissed in total but several hundred had been reinstated after complaints to the Labour Ministry.

At the government-owned Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), which hosts the Bahrain Grand Prix, around a quarter of the staff were either dismissed or suspended, said Reuters, quoting a BIC employee who declined to be named.

While Bahraini authorities have lifted the martial law ahead of the critical Formula One vote, BCHR's Nabeel Rajab says the situation on the ground remains grim as hundreds are still in detention after they were rounded up for participating in demonstrations.

“Nothing at all has changed,” said Rajab. “Instead of rights, every family got a political prisoner.”

When the police come knocking…

One of Bahrain’s most respected human rights activists, Rajab himself has been frequently targeted for his work.

Nabeel Rajab
Nabeel Rajab

On Tuesday afternoon, just hours before emergency rule was lifted, police entered Rajab’s home and ordered him to report to the office of the military prosecutor where he was questioned for five hours, without the presence of a lawyer, about his interviews with the international press and his Twitter postings on human rights abuses.

Since the demonstrations broke, Rajab and his family have come under frequent attack.

On March 20, police raided his home after midnight. “They handcuffed me before my children, blindfolded me, put me in the back of a security car and took me to an unknown location where they beat me, punched my face…before bringing me to the police criminal investigation department,” he explains.

Rajab was questioned for three hours before being released.

The attacks, he maintains, do not intimidate him. Neither, he adds, will the declining momentum of the protests.

“People want change. People believe in change,” he said. “They know the course is difficult, but people are committed. In the past two days (since the emergency was lifted) the government has been shocked to see people back on the streets.”

On Friday, while demonstrators gathered at Pearl Roundabout, thousands of mourners descended on a Manama cemetery to bury a protester who died in a hospital from injuries sustained during a demonstration in March.

Cycle of discontent and suppression looks set to continue

While the country’s main Shi'ite opposition party, Wefaq, issued a statement saying it supported the government's efforts to bring back Formula One, many ordinary Shi'ites in the impoverished villages around Manama told reporters they opposed it.

Not all Bahrainis were bemoaning the Grand Prix rescheduling, though. In the tiny island nation deeply divided along sectarian and class lines, some Bahrainis were vociferous in their support for Formula One – and the denouncement of their detractors.

Shortly after the news broke, some Bahraini Formula One enthusiasts cheered on Twitter.

“Dear all, Nabeel Rajab is not able to reply to your tweets, he is busy crying & banging his head on the wall. Regards, F1 Supporter,” tweeted a person whose pseudonym is “Abdulkarim86”.

Rajab though says he’s not sure just how the Grand Prix could take place in Bahrain in the current climate, when most international observers and journalists are being denied visas.

“Many journalists have been tortured and detained. I don’t know how journalists will come to Bahrain to cover the event. What about the photographers? There are so many photographers in jail. How are they going to cover the event?” he asks.

The opposition movement is likely to try to capitalise on the great international attention around the Bahrain Grand Prix to raise awareness of their largely overlooked cause. But that would almost certainly draw a bigger government crackdown and another round in the country’s cycle of discontent and suppression.

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