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Pressure mounts on Bahrain as hunger striker reaches 62nd day (+video)

Bahrain has been trumpeting its return to normalcy ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix that begins April 20. But now there is increasing pressure to cancel the car race.

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“Things are moving back to normal again,” says Abdullatif Al-Mahmood, leader of the largely-Sunni Gathering of National Unity, a party created last spring in opposition to the mostly Shiite demonstrations.
 
But activists argue that, despite an apparent calm, Shiite communities still face a barrage of human rights abuses. At least 31 protesters have died in the past four months, according to a March 26 report by the human rights group BCHR. Most recently, a young man was shot in the leg while filming a protest.

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The BICI report’s recommendation to release all political prisoners – of which BCHR estimates there are still about 400 – has also been ignored. One of the detained, former head of the regional human rights group Frontline Defenders Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is on a hunger strike to protest the holding of political prisoners. Mr. Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence after being charged last year with trying to overthrow Bahrain's Sunni-ruled system, was hospitalized April 7, his 59th day of hunger striking, and his family has been denied access to him since.

Over the weekend, Denmark requested to take custody of Khawaja, who also holds Danish citizenship, and provide him with medical treatment, but the Bahraini government refused. Today Bahrain rejected reports that he has severe medical problems, saying he is taking fluids orally and intravenously.

'Collective punishment'

At a lower level, daily life in the Shiite villages has deteriorated into a routine that Nabeel Rajab, head of BCHR, calls "collective punishment." Young men are beaten and arrested, often arbitrarily – sometimes around protests or sometimes in dawn raids. The injured are afraid to seek medical treatment, since Army personnel guard hospital gates and interrogate protesters before the doctors are allowed to treat them. Twenty doctors were sentenced to 15 years in prison last fall for treating protesters.
 
The broad and often indiscriminate use of tear gas is another example. A barrage of canisters floods neighborhoods on a daily basis – aimed not just at the protests but at houses and closed compounds. Twenty people have died from inhalation since November, many of them children or elderly people, according to BCHR.

"Nothing has changed,” says Sheikh Ali Salman, chairman of the largest Shiite opposition group, Wefaq. He says the government has shown no real intent to implement the BICI report's recommendations. “There is no seriousness to do anything for the report.”

Increasing pressure to cancel F1 race

Race organizers are under increasing pressure to cancel the Formula One event in Bahrain, including from former champion Damon Hill, who has called on organizers to reconsider.

Yesterday, The Times of London reported that racing teams were considering boycotting the event. And every day for the past week, hundreds of protesters have marched to demand Khawaja’s release and draw a contrast between his meager condition and the opulent Formula One plans.

As both sides made their case about Bahrain’s stability, the gulf between them has grown ever more entrenched. Getting the protesters off the street and back into politics will require the government to make real concessions – exactly the sort that Sunni groups are now calling upon the regime not to capitulate to.

Absent a political solution, the protesters have started to escalate their resistance against police. After nine months of nonviolence, some demonstrators began throwing stones back at police in November. Now they occasionally use molotov cocktails. Yesterday seven policemen were injured when a homemade petrol bomb thought to have been planted by protesters exploded just outside the capital, Manama. Wefaq and human rights groups discourage such tactics, but local activists are the ones calling the shots on the streets.
 
Meanwhile, Sunni groups like Mahmood's Gathering of National Unity have made the end of protests a precondition for political dialogue with the opposition. "The current mistake that the government is doing is that there is no assertiveness ... against those who are creating the mess and the violence in the streets," says Dr. Mahmood.

Analysts now speak of a resolution in years – not months – with Formula One as just one of many battlegrounds. At the protest for Khawaja on April 6, a 26-year-old protester named Mahmood who feared arrest, vowed to “continue until our demands are met and Bahrain is free.”

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