A heavy police presence on the streets of Bahrain ensured that pro-democracy protests did not disrupt the country’s controversial Grand Prix today – which activists had argued should not have taken place due to widespread human rights abuses by the ruling monarchy.
Protesters burnt tyres to block several roads on the outskirts of the capital city of Manama today while scores of police cars and armoured vehicles protected the Sakhir circuit, where the world champion Sebastian Vettel took victory. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said several small protests were broken up by security forces throughout the day in the villages of Sanabis, al-Daih and Jidhafs, where police arrested 13 protesters. The group said police had fired tear gas at a secondary school where students were demonstrating.
Activists from the largely Shia opposition groups held a number large-scale demonstrations in the run-up to the race, calling for its cancellation due to alleged human rights abuses by the ruling Sunni minority monarchy. The opposition reported widespread arrests in the days preceding the race as the government sought to avoid a repeat of the kind of violence that led to the race being cancelled in 2011.
Rights groups say 80 people have been killed since pro-democracy protests inspired by the Arab Spring broke out in the country in February 2011, including one man in protests against last year’s Grand Prix. Despite pressure from the country’s opposition groups and from a number of British MPs, Formula One’s organisers refused to consider cancelling the race. Speaking to reporters on Saturday, the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone said it wasn’t his job to question the laws of every country they visit.
“We don’t go anywhere to judge how a country is run,” he said. “I keep asking people, ‘What human rights?’ – I don’t know what they are,” he said. “The rights are that people who live in the country abide by the laws of the country, whatever they are.”
Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights criticised the race’s organisers yesterday for ignoring human rights abuses in the country.
“The Bahraini government want to show the world that there is no problem here, but there is a crackdown and a revolution in Bahrain. People are calling for democracy and being killed,” he said.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa had called for calm ahead of the race. “What I would like to say is: let’s focus on what’s positive, let’s build upon the platform that we have, and let’s celebrate this event with Bahrainis who are really passionate,” he said.