Demonstrations Planned as Racing Event Heads for Bahrain

Henry Ridgwell

The motor racing Formula One Grand Prix heads to Bahrain this weekend, a year after it was cancelled because of violent anti-government protests and a government crackdown. Bahraini authorities insist the situation is now stable - but protesters say human rights abuses are continuing on a daily basis and have vowed to do all they can to make their voices heard this weekend.

Tear gas and Molotov cocktails rained down on parts of Manama, Bahrain's capital, this week. Opposition members are stepping up their anti-government protests ahead of the Grand Prix on Sunday.

Among them, Dr. Nada Dhaif. She and 19 other medics were sentenced to 15 years in jail for allegedly aiding the demonstrations last year. She has been released pending an appeal and spoke to VOA on the phone from Bahrain.

“We will get the whole media’s attention on Bahrain and then we have the chance to show to the whole world what is the reality. Actually I’m heading now to central Manama to demonstrate there and to protest to free Abdulhadi al-Khawaja,” Dhaif said.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Bahraini-Danish human rights activist, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to topple the monarchy. He’s been on a hunger strike for nearly 70 days, and fellow activists say his condition is critical.

London-based human rights group Amnesty International details what it claims are continuing abuses by the Bahrain government.  

“Excessive use of force by the security services, they are using a lot of tear gas, and a number of people have died as a result. They are also making arbitrary arrests and also using torture and ill-treatment. We will be seeing a lot of human rights abuses,” said Amnesty's Said Boumedouha.

The Bahrain government denies such accusations.

It points to the Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up by the monarchy in the wake of last year’s protests. The government insists it is making political reforms and is prosecuting those guilty of rights abuses.

But Amnesty International says only 11 low-ranking officers have been put on trial.

Bahraini activist Doctor Nada Dhaif says the political changes are just cosmetic.

“In reality, on the ground, nothing has been changed. There are daily protests going on, there’s daily raiding of the villages, the excessive use of force and the excessive use of tear gas,” Dhaif said.

Most Formula One drivers have stayed silent on the issue. But two-time champion Sebastian Vettel did speak out.

“The latest comment was that we are going to Bahrain to race there. If that's still the call, then I think it's safe enough to go, then we should go there and race and not worry about something that is not our business,” Vettel said.

The sport’s governing body says it is satisfied with the security situation - and insists the race will go ahead as scheduled.

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April 19, 2012 2:35 AM
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