Bahrain: Formula One protests highlight bloody regime

April 28, 2012

The Bahrain government's attempts to use the April 22 Formula One race to portray the country as harmonious have backfired badly.

The world's media were forced to focus on the ongoing protests against the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty over demands for democracy and justice for those who have suffered human rights abuses.

The government marketed the race with the slogan "UniF1ed", in a brazen attempt to whitewash the protests and suggest the country had returned to normal.

The race was another branch of the government's PR campaign, which also claimed reforms were taking place. However, days of big rallies and the murder of a protester made a mockery of such claims.

Activist Alaa Shehabi told Reuters on April 23: “[The government] miscalculated. They thought cancelling the race would be a defeat for them but they didn't realise the cost of holding the race.”

Scorn was also poured on Formula One administrators, who used their sport to help enhance the image of a brutal dictatorship. Formula One bosses, headed by billionaire chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, have been described as "vile", "amoral" and "lacking any moral compass", the Belfast Telegraph said on April 24.

Formula One did nothing to stop the government politicising the race, despite the fact that such behaviour is banned under its rules, the Guardian said on April 23.

Turnout for the race was low. The official figure of 28,000 was grossly exaggerated, the Daily Telegraph said on April 24.

Despite the criticism, Ecclestone said: “We will be back here next year, and for many years after.”

The protests that took place during the race have been a common feature on Bahrain's streets since February last year. The race forced the West to break its silence on the wide-scale human rights abuses that have taken place since the democracy movement mobilised hundreds of thousands of people as part of the Arab Spring.

The government violently cracked down on protesters in March last year, when troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded to help the regime cling to power.

Repression has been constant since then. Harassment, beatings and arrests of anyone suspected of involvement with protests are common, especially in poor, Shia Muslim neighbourhoods.

In the lead up to the race, there was a rise in police firing on protesters with shotguns. Activist group Bahrain Watch said on April 18 that, during the previous week, there had been a sharp spike in birdshot pellet injuries. The full number of injuries was not known as many of the wounded avoided hospital for fear of arrest.

Due to the greater media attention, United Nations  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the government to respect human rights and acknowledged the plight of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike in a Bahraini jail since February 8.

Al-Khawaja's captors claimed he was in “good health”, despite serious fears his condition was deteriorating after more than 11 weeks without food, Al Jazeera said on April 25.

Al-Khawaja, a prominent figure in the democracy movement, was sentenced to life in jail last year for his work as a human rights activist. He was arrested in April last year and charged with “plotting to overthrow the government” along with eight other human rights defenders, said on March 19.

Al-Khawaja was tortured in a similar manner to other reports by prisoners of the Bahraini government. said on April 19 he had been “beaten to the point of unconsciousness, tortured to the point of needing a four-hour surgery to 'fix' broken bones, and sexually abused to the point of having to bang [his] head against a concrete wall to make it stop”. said on April 11 that there were about 600 political prisoners in Bahrain. About 400 “are thought to be currently serving sentences delivered by military and civilian courts that fall far short of international standards for fair trials”.

Al-Khawaja said in a statement in March: “My hunger strike is a part of my human rights defence inside jail. It's very important to focus on all detainees as I'm just a part of them.

“I will continue with my hunger strike 'til I reach my demands despite the consequences. I'm aware that freedom is expensive and we must sacrifice to gain it.”

Bahrain's ruling family has been propped up by Western powers for more than 200 years. It hosts the US navy's fifth fleet, which is used to threaten nearby Iran and secure oil shipping routes through the Persian Gulf. It is also a hub for international finance, making it an important place for the world's business elite.

Many mainstream reports imply the West merely tolerates the Bahraini government's crimes, ignoring the fact that existence of such a brutal regime is a direct result of Western support.

The al-Khalifa royal family has sown religious divisions by discriminating economically and socially against the Shia Muslim majority in favour of the Sunni Muslim minority to which they belong.

The pro-democracy movement ― led largely by Shias ― has called for unity, equality, democratic rights and an end to elite corruption.

Despite the brutality dished out to them, Bahrain's democracy activists have not backed down. The Coalition of February 14th Youth told on March 22: “The more aggressive and brutal the security grip, the more determined the resolve and steadfastness of the revolutionaries.”

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