Days before the first driver starts his engine for the Bahrain Grand Prix, human rights organizations and the emirate are in a race of their own.
Officials are working overtime to convince the public that the island kingdom is safe and secure despite more than a year of unrest that led to the cancellation of the 2011 race. But domestic and international human rights organizations are mounting a campaign of their own, saying Bahrain remains a serial violator of human rights despite promises of reform and shouldn’t be hosting high-profile sporting events.
A flurry of reports and petitions and other measures are on the way this week in a last-ditch effort to block the Formula One race scheduled for April 20-22. But Bahrain’s rulers are ahead so far: The Federation Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of motor sports, broke its silence in the matter and on Friday gave the go-ahead for the race to proceed on schedule.
There is a lot more at stake than being first past the checkered flag. The chronic unrest and the government crackdown has put Bahrain into the crosshairs of the global human rights movement and weighed heavily on the economy. Staging a successful race would signal that the country’s problems are behind it and, according to the race’s local organizers, will pump almost $300 million into the economy and create the equivalent of 400 full-time jobs.
But the grievances of Bahrain’s Shi'ite Muslim majority against the Sunni regime of Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa have not been resolved. On Friday, as FIA issued a statement backing the race, a 14-year-old boy was shot in the chest and another youth was in critical condition after being beaten during clashes between police and mourners. They were attending the funeral of a man shot during anti-government protests two weeks earlier.
Last week an explosion injured at least seven policemen in Ekar south of the capital of Manama, a place where security forces and protesters frequently clash. In response, last Wednesday, mobs with iron rods and sticks ransacked a supermarket belonging to a major Shiite-owned business group.
Nabeel Rajab, president, Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said the authorities were cracking down on opposition protestors ahead of the race, staging arrests and attacking demonstrators that he alleged was intended to ensure they were still convalescing by the time the Grad Prix begins.
He said peaceful and legal protests are planned during the race even as he held out hope that the last minute campaign would convince the race organizers to cancel.
“They have put profits and their interests before human rights. The situation [in Bahrain] has worsened. The number of people who were killed from the beginning of the year till now is more than people killed last year,” Rajab told The Media Line. If the race goes as planned, it will earn an image as the “sport of dictators,” he said.
Pressure on the race organizers is mounting.
Amnesty International will be publishing a 50-page report three days before it gets underway that will document “patterns of human rights violations” and provides testimonies of “victims of human rights violations who are still awaiting justice.” Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders is launching an online petition condemning Bahrain’s “appallingly repressive policies.”
Physicians for Human Rights, meanwhile has been pressing for the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights and democracy activist who it says faces death after a nearly two-month long hunger strike. Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch stopped short of calling for the race to be cancelled in an interview with Autosport a day before FIA announced its decisions, but made clear he thought the organizers should think twice.
“This seems to be a terrible climate in which to hold what is supposed to be a competitive, festive sporting event. In the circumstances, I don't know who is going to be having any fun,” Stork said in the interview.
Bahrain's Shi'ite opposition on Sunday announced a week of daily pro-democracy protests in the Gulf kingdom until after the controversial Formula One Grand Prix race scheduled for next Sunday, April 22.
For its part, the government has hired PR firms to make its case overseas. At home, local organizers have been dispatching “speedy,” the official race mascot, to schools around the country as part of a nation-wide campaign to spur excitement ahead of the race. But it had trouble keeping the controversies out of the media.
London’s Daily Mirror reported that McLaren team drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button walked out of yesterday's press conference when a reported began a question with: “sixty people have died in 12 months…” A press handler stepped in before the reporter could ask the questions and announced that “they’ve got to go…” ushering them out of the room. The team is 40 percent owned by Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund.
Indicative of the PR battle underway is Damon Hill, the 1996 Formula One champion and today a sports commentator. At the start of April, he told the British newspaper The Guardian he had misgivings about the race. “It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race. That is not what this sport should be about.”
But a day after the FIA decision he changed his mind.
“All the arguments have been made for and against. Human rights organizations have had their cases heard. No one is under any illusions about the situation. But the less vocal majority of Bahrainis also have a right to get on with their lives and we also have a responsibility to our F1 fans in the region,” Hill said a statement issued by a Bahrain International Circuit, the local Formula One sponsor.
At least 35 people died during protests in February-March 2011, including five security officers. More than 4,000 people, among them teachers, students, nurses and people working for the local Formula One sponsor, were dismissed from their jobs or university for taking part in the anti-government protests.
A force led by Saudi Arabia quelled the disturbances and the government appointed a commission to examine what happened, but protests have continued. Amnesty International says hundreds of protesters are still in prison after being tried unfairly in military courts, dozens for life. The government’s promise to reinstate all those who have been dismissed from work or university for participating in protests is yet to be fulfilled, it said.
All told, about 90 people have been killed in clashes between the government and opposition.