This year’s Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix has officially started despite anti-government protests and vows that "three days of rage" would coincide with the entire weekend of race-related events.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters as escalating violence in the Persian Gulf kingdom forced officials to tighten security ahead of Friday’s practice sessions. Some protesters vowed to take their demonstrations to the race site.
On Wednesday, two members of the Force India team left Bahrain after firebombs landed near their rental car.
The Bahrain International Circuit later confirmed the team’s vehicle had not been targeted directly, but was caught in an altercation between police and protesters on a local highway.
The decision by Formula One bosses to hold the Grand Prix in the troubled country has been met with much controversy.
The event was cancelled last year after anti-government demonstrations turned deadly.
In a statement released last week, Amnesty International said the situation in Bahrain has not improved since 2011. Amnesty researcher Said Boumedouha says this is the message protesters are trying to amplify.
“They basically want the international community to know that the majority of the population in Bahrain is still determined to protest against the government because they have been calling for meaningful political reforms, but the government has failed to introduce such reforms," he said.
Held under the slogan "UniF1ed," many Bahrainis believe the Grand Prix could help unite the country, while others see it as legitimizing the government’s continued crackdown on opposition protesters.
A former employee of the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) who says he was tortured at the race venue last May, says he feels betrayed by Formula One’s return, as nothing has been done to bring his attackers to justice.
"They started beating us and kicking us and dragging us, and most of us were bleeding at that time," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about his personal safety.
He and 28 of his colleagues, he added, all Shi’ite Muslims, were arrested at the circuit in Sakhir and tortured in backrooms before being taken to prison where they were further abused.
Another former BIC employee insists he avoided political demonstrations last year but was arrested and tortured at the circuit anyway. Also requesting anonymity, he said he has mixed feelings about the Grand Prix.
"Part of me says, 'let it go to Bahrain this year, maybe next year things will be better,'" he said. "The other side of me says, 'no, Bahrain doesn’t deserve this good reputation.' The fact that the torture had been on the premises of BIC: the place is ugly, it’s tarnished, and if I look at it purely from a personal point of view, yes, I feel bitter about it, and I don’t want it to happen."
Bahraini Shi’ites say they are treated like second-class citizens by the nation’s ruling Sunni minority and began protesting for more rights last February. A deadly government crackdown ensued.
In recent months, violent street battles between opposition supporters and security forces have intensified.
The main opposition party al-Wefaq, which has been holding a week of demonstrations in the run-up to the official Grand Prix race on Sunday, has promoted peaceful protests. However, many youths frustrated by the slow pace of reform have been resorting to more violent tactics.
The Grand Prix is the biggest sporting event in Bahrain and costs an estimated $40 million to stage.
Only small crowds were seen in the grandstand for Friday's practice.