Formula One returns this week to Bahrain, casting the spotlight on an event that has defied criticism while a bloody political crisis has engulfed one of the West’s most important allies in the region.
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The Bahrain Grand Prix has drawn less attention than a year ago when F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone in the final hours decided to go ahead with the race despite calls by some rights groups for a boycott.
But criticism has intensified in the past week after explosions sparked security concerns and a Human Rights Watch report alleged that authorities rounded up activists living around the track in a bid to ”silence” dissent ahead of the race on Sunday.
”The race is going ahead and our position is quite simply to call it out for what it is. It is a political event which will serve to gloss over serious rights violations,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Similar to last year, team officials have mostly dodged the question of racing in Bahrain. However, Franz Tost, team principal of Toro Rosso, endorsed the race.
”I don’t see any problems going to Bahrain,” Tost said. ”I’m looking forward to going there. Formula One is entertainment. We should not be involved in politics. We should go there, do our race.”
The competing messages over F1 were on full display this week in the Bahrain capital Manama, where huge signs promoting the race contrasted with tear gas and angry, anti-government chants echoing through some Shiite-majority villages.
Carrying portraits of people killed in the nearly three-year uprising and signs calling for a boycott of F1, protesters on Monday warned those attending the race will effectively have blood on their hands.
Ecclestone, as he has done in years past, has insisted that the circuit is safe and the race would go on. F1 organizers have said the race is crucial to the island nation’s fragile economy.
Ecclestone said he’d spoken to both sides last year and was prepared to meet with people representing the protesters and the authorities again if needed.
He said he knows people will use the country’s premier international sporting event to try to promote their cause.
Organizers would like the focus to be on the track, where another wide-open season is unfolding after Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday to become the third winner in as many GPs.
Alonso ended a 12-race drought in Shanghai and is attempting to compete this year with three-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel.
It remains to be seen how many fans will come to Bahrain amid tight security and expectations of daily clashes between Sunni-led authorities and majority Shiites seeking a greater political voice.
Bahrain authorities this week said they would step up security following a gas-cylinder blast that set a car ablaze in the financial district. The attacks caused no injuries and limited damage.
Security forces Tuesday fired tear gas into a high school to break up a protest of students demonstrating against the detention of a classmate overnight.
Last year, there were no problems during the race. But it was overshadowed by huge anti-government protests and a firebomb that briefly delayed a Force India car and prompted the team to pull out of the second practice.
Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, has demanded that FIA president Jean Todt take a stance on Bahrain hosting the race.
”He’s not said anything that has distanced the sport from things that it would find distasteful and upsetting, which I believe everybody in the sport would actually like to do,” Hill told British reporters in Shanghai last week.
”I think the vast majority of the people in Formula One would like to say `We don’t want to come here to make things worse for people,”’ he said. ”`We would like you to enjoy Formula One, we think Formula One has lots of positive things to offer, but please don’t, on our behalf, round up people and brutalize them.”’
Sadiq Yousef, 44, said he joined the protest after his family was injured.
”Our message to the world is to say you are racing on our blood,” Yousef said. ”Before, I was not protesting. But after my wife and daughter were attacked, I realized the regime was starting to treat us like slaves.”
Most protesters seemed to be resigned that the race would go on but were hopeful that it will shed light and revive interest in a conflict that has largely been overshadowed by the civil war in Syria and post-revolution unrest in Egypt.
”We are demanding democracy. It is our right,” said Hussain al-Ghanmi, another protester. ”We will keep marching in the streets until our voices are heard around the world. I think the international community will support our demands because we are demanding our rights.”