Bahrain has been accused of arbitrarily detaining potential trouble-makers in house-to-house raids ahead of next month's Formula One Grand Prix, an event which will throw an international spotlight on the handling of anti-government protesters in the Kingdom.
The Bahraini government today contested the claims by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that plainclothes policemen had rounded up twenty people a series of dawn raids in towns in the vicinity of the racetrack. The rights group said the arrests raised questions over the government's commitment to reform.
Bahrain has been wracked by often violent demonstrations since the beginning of the Arab Spring two years ago, with its disenfranchised Shia majority complaining of widespread discrimination under the Sunni monarchy. Tensions have been rising ahead of the race weekend which begins on April 19, with protesters taking to the streets this week calling for the Grand Prix to be cancelled, carrying banners with slogans such as "Our blood is your car fuel" and "Our skulls are crushed under your wheels".
The government will be keen to avoid a repeat of the scenes at last year's race, when demonstrators blocked roads with burning tyres and police fired tear gas to control crowds in Shia villages. The Grand Prix was cancelled completely in 2011after drivers including Damon Hill raised concerns after the death of at least 35 demonstrators as the government called in Saudi Arabian-led forces to help stamp out unrest.
The government has pledged reforms after an inquiry commissioned by King Hamad ibn Issa al Khalifa found that security forces had used disproportionate and indiscriminate force in dealing with protesters in 2011. However, activists and rights groups complain little has been done to bring perpetrators to account, and attempts at dialogue with the majority-Shia opposition have proved abortive.
Formula One boss Bernie Eccleston has said that he expects this year's event to go ahead without problems, adding that if protesters "had any brains they just get on with their talks", in reference to negotiations between the main opposition Al-Wefaq party and the government.
"These raids and detentions suggest that officials are more concerned with getting activists out of circulation for the Formula 1 race than with addressing the legitimate grievances that have led so many Bahrainis to take to the streets," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
Quoting local sources, HRW said that the arrests had been made in about 30 raids since April 1. In one such case a group of about 10 masked, armed men in civilian clothes arrived at the house of a 17-year-old boy in the village of Madinat in the early morning hours of April 3, arresting him without a warrant or providing identification, the group said citing the teenager's father. It said those arrested include prominent anti-government protest leaders, with some detained at temporary checkpoints set up near the £100m Sakhir desert circuit.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights contends that it has documented 50 arrests, and claims many of those detained have not had access to a lawyer.
However, the Bahraini Information Minister Sameera Rajab said: "We discredit any news of such arrests in recent days or even months."
He said that arrests without warrants do not happen in Bahrain, adding: "If there is any action against peace and security, it must be dealt with according to law."