Ecclestone steps into controversy of Bahrain's F1 hunger striker


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The Independent Online

The deteriorating condition of a jailed Bahraini hunger striker has raised the prospect that next month's Grand Prix in the country could be called off.

Faced with mounting pressure to cancel next month's race, the Formula 1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone, said yesterday that teams would have the final say on whether the event goes ahead.

"We can't force teams to take part. They would be in breach of contracts with us [F1] if they didn't, but we would deal with that matter as a separate issue," he told the BBC.

But is understood that Mr Ecclestone personally contacted Bahrain's Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa on Monday to raise concerns over the condition of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a rights activist who has refused food since 8 February in protest at his life sentence for allegedly plotting against the state.

Dr Ala'a Shehabi, a writer and activist based in Bahrain, told The Independent that Mr Ecclestone contacted her yesterday to inquire about Mr Khawaja's condition. He told her he had spoken to the prince about the hunger striker's case.

"[Mr Ecclestone] said he was very concerned about what is going on. He said the crown prince told him that Al-Khawaja was doing fine, but I said that I am hearing very different reports," said Dr Shehabi.

Dr Shehabi said Mr Ecclestone proposed holding a press conference with opposition leaders in Bahrain, saying the event could be "an opportunity".

Bahrain's opposition supporters have been staging daily rallies for Mr Khawaja's release, frequently clashing with security forces.

In a sign of increasing insecurity in the country, seven Bahraini policemen were wounded, three seriously, when a home-made bomb exploded on Monday during one such rally.

Mr Khawaja's declining health has prompted appeals for his release from groups such as Amnesty International. Bahraini authorities denied last night that the hunger striker was close to death, saying he showed no signs of serious medical problems and had been taking fluids orally or by a drip.

Dr Shehabi is one of many activists in Bahrain and abroad calling on Mr Ecclestone to cancel the race.

"I enjoy Formula 1 and my husband is a motor sports fan. But how can we enjoy that when entire villages are under siege? When a man is on hunger strike?" she said.

"We are going to be living in frustration, anger and sadness while people are popping champagne bottles and celebrating on the other side of the island. That is going to be taken as a provocation by the protesters and they are becoming increasingly militant," Dr Shehabi added.

The former Formula 1 world champion Damon Hill has also called for a rethink. Mr Ecclestone said yesterday that no team had told him it wanted to pull out, but reports have suggested that some teams are uneasy about the race going ahead.