LONDON — Anti-government protesters in Bahrain are stepping up their demonstrations as Formula One (F1) drivers and their teams head to Bahrain for Sunday’s Grand Prix auto race. A group of youth activists claimed responsibility for a car bomb in Manama Friday, in which no one was injured. Some British lawmakers are calling for the head of F1 to cancel the race.
Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces on the island of Sitra, just south of Manama Saturday lasted for more than eight hours - the latest in an upsurge of violence ahead of Sunday’s F1 race.
Activists who want more political rights for Bahrain's Shi'ite majority have announced a week of what they called “volcanic flames” aimed at disrupting the event.
The auto race - widely followed around the world - is the premier event on the country's sporting calendar. Protesters claim it gives the government international legitimacy at a time when they say human rights are being brutally repressed.
“We are in an undeclared situation of martial law," said Dr. Nada Dhaif, a Shia activist who was arrested for treating injured protesters two years ago. "The checkpoints are everywhere in Bahrain. There are severe traffic jams. Wherever you want to go, you will be checked, you will be stopped. And the Shia villages in Bahrain are surrounded. There’s daily attacks whether there’s a protest or not.”
Protests mainly by majority Shias against the Sunni-controlled government erupted in February 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring.
The protests - and crackdown by authorities - go on and have intensified ahead of the F1 auto race.
Bahrain’s Chief of Public Security, Tariq Al-Hassan, said there will definitely be those who are not happy with the event, or who may have their own agenda or view. But no information or talk bothers us, he says. " We take our precautions, and we are prepared."
Bahrain’s Cabinet wants to impose jail terms of up to five years for defaming the king or the national flag - actions commonly alleged against opposition protesters.
In Britain, a group of lawmakers has written to F1 authorities calling for the race to be cancelled.
“The Bahraini dictatorship uses Formula One to pretend things are normal. You can come there and you can watch a big sporting occasion and people can live normal lives. The reality is that’s not true at all for the majority of people in Bahrain all the year round, but particularly during the Grand Prix, when the country’s in lockdown, when you’ve got armored cars, barbed wire, tear gas,” asserted Andy Slaughter, lawmaker group chairman.
Activist Dr. Nada Dhaif said the race brings much-needed media coverage to Bahrain. “If it goes on, then let’s use it," she stressed. "Let’s expose what’s going on, the situation, the violations that are continuing in Bahrain. And if it gets cancelled, then the propaganda that comes with it also, both ways it can be useful.”
Formula One's president, Bernie Ecclestone, has offered to meet Bahrain’s anti-government protesters. But he insists the race will go ahead.