Formula One drivers took to the race track yesterday following days of violent clashes between police and protesters in Bahrain, with organisers defying calls for the controversial Grand Prix to be cancelled.
Heightened security in anti-government strongholds prevented protesters from demonstrating in large numbers. Activists claimed that police used tear gas to stop demonstrations in several Shia villages around Manama after the Grand Prix had finished.
The event was the ruling Sunni monarchy's opportunity to show that life had returned to normal after security concerns over anti-government protests led to the cancellation of last year's race.
Officials put the attendance at yesterday's race at 28,000, in a circuit that can hold 45,000 spectators. Before the race, youths burned tyres and blocked roads in Budaiya, a village outside the capital that saw mass protests this week. As the first cars crossed the finish line in the afternoon, protesters announced plans to gather at the site of the former Pearl Roundabout in the centre of Manama – the focus of last year's clashes – but were hampered by a heavy security presence.
More demonstrations are anticipated after the death of a protester on Saturday. But activists said that many people were reluctant to protest after the recent crackdown.
"There are armoured vehicles at the entrance to every village. If anyone emerges now they will just be shot at. The government has sent a very strong message," activist Dr Alaa Shehabi said. Shortly after speaking to The Independent, Dr Shehabi was detained by police. Her arrest came amid reports that a journalist from The Sunday Telegraph had been taken to a police station in Bahrain. It also later emerged that Jonathan Miller, foreign affairs correspondent for Channel 4 News, and his team had also been arrested while reporting from Bahrain. But as the Foreign Office said it was seeking consular access, Mr Miller said that he had been released and was about to be deported. Channel 4 News said the team's local driver had been "assaulted in front of the team, and then separated from them".
Earlier, opposition parties claimed that a 37-year-old man found dead on Saturday was killed by riot police. Protester Salah Abbas Habib was found sprawled on a rooftop after overnight clashes, providing more outrage among a Shia Muslim majority furious at being marginalised by the ruling Sunnis.
The fate of hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 men jailed for leading last year's uprising, is also stoking anger. His health has entered a critical stage after more than 70 days of protest. Yesterday, he met the ambassador from Denmark, where he is also a citizen.
At least 50 people have been killed since unrest erupted in Bahrain in 2011. Last year's F1 race was cancelled because of the uprising by the kingdom's Shia majority, which is seeking to break the ruling Sunni dynasty's hold on power.
Away from all the street protests, at the Bahrain International Circuit's colourful paddock, there was one overriding sentiment among race organisers and participants following the end of the race: relief.
A few female protesters were reported to have been arrested behind the main grandstand, but there were no demonstrations on the grid, or track invasions.
"From the point of view of the business of motor racing, it was normal Bahrain," McLaren team driver Jenson Button said. "We don't wear blinkers and we know there has been a lot going on outside, not far from our hotel in Manama. But we haven't seen that, and all we know about it is what we have read."
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