In most countries, the supercharged Formula One (F1) car-racing circuit is marked by decadent celebrations, high-profile guests, and hundreds of millions of dollars of international investment.
Bahrain missed out last year, when its plans to host the event were canceled after dozens of Arab Spring protesters were killed in clashes with security forces.
The tiny Gulf kingdom was determined not to miss out a second time, and declared ahead of this year’s April 20-22 event that all is back to normal. The country’s slogan, “UniF1ed” – united behind the F1 race, was draped on banners lining skyscrapers, highways, and shopping malls.
But activists are trying to leverage the event to garner international support for their campaign for greater rights, particularly for the country's downtrodden Shiite majority. Amid persistent abuses and the increasingly desperate hunger strike of prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, speculation is growing that the race may be cancelled again.
For weeks leading up to the race, youths have gathered in the late afternoon in Shiite villages such as Abu Saiba to protest the event. Young men block the roads with debris, march through the streets until the security forces moved in by foot, and then retreat as tear gas rains down. Abaya-clad women scribble anti-F1 messages on the scarves they used to block tear gas from entering their mouths.
“We don’t want the F1 to be in Bahrain until the government respects human rights,” says Said Yousif, a leader at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) who sees the event as a way to give undeserved legitimacy to the government. Youths use even more blunt language.
This is the true race in Bahrain: A contest between two very different ideas about where the country stands 14 months after protests first broke out. To activists and much of the Shiite population, political change has been denied and delayed, but is still worth fighting for.
But to the government and an increasingly political group of Sunnis who have traditionally been loyal to the regime, Formula One is a sign that the troubles of 2011 are over. "Formula One [is one effort] bringing Bahrain back to life,” says Sawsan Al-Shaer, a columnist who says the protests have degenerated to a few radicals. “Before 2011, this was Bahrain. Now, we are [once again] back in Bahrain.”
The stakes aren't just about perception. The grinding conflict stands to set this developed country back for years. Investment has essentially halted amid the political uncertainty, say businessmen, who note that no data exist on just how bad things are. The political rhetoric and the clashes on the streets are also hardening, with hundreds injured, dozens dead, and untold numbers who have been arrested or traumatized. That instability is far from welcome in a country situated at the heart of global geopolitical tension: just off the coast of Saudi Arabia, across the Persian Gulf from Iran, and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Political prisoner on 62nd day of hunger strike
Government supporters and several Sunni opposition groups date the end of the country's unrest to Nov. 23, when well-respected Egyptian Human Rights lawyer M. Cherif Bassiouni presented the findings of a government-commissioned Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) regarding the abuses that took place that year. The report was widely lauded for its extensive documentation of systematic abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary arrest.
On March 25, a government-appointed follow-up committee reported on its first steps toward implementing the recommendations – which many Sunnis saw as a sufficient concession to the protesters.
“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.
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.
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.”