Protests simmer as Bahrain wins back Formula One

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 03, 2011 2:23 PM
Protests simmer as Bahrain wins back Formula One

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain scored a public relations coup on Friday by winning back its Formula One Grand Prix, canceled earlier this year after pro-democracy protests erupted in the Gulf Arab island kingdom.

Majority Shi'ites demanding political reforms continued to stage protests on Friday, two days after the lifting of emergency rule that the country's minority Sunni rulers hope will bring back tourism and commerce after months of turmoil.

"Congratulations -- we got it!" Fayyad, a Sunni employee of a private airline, shouted in a cafe in Manama when news began to buzz in social media that a motor racing council meeting in Barcelona had agreed to reinstate the race later this year.

In February, Bahrain canceled the Formula One season's opening race after clashes between security forces and protesters camped out in their thousands at Pearl Roundabout.

Despite calls by human rights groups against reinstating the race, a source told Reuters that the vote for Bahrain had been unanimous. The race is now scheduled for October 30.

"As a country we have faced a difficult time, but stability has returned; with businesses operating close to normal, the State of National Safety lifted and countries removing travel restrictions," said Bahrain International Circuit head Zayed R Alzayani.

"Collectively, we are in the process of addressing issues of national and international concern, and learning lessons from the recent past. By the time the Grand Prix arrives we will be able to remind the world about Bahrain at its best."

Alzayani said the race would attract 100,000 visitors, support 3,000 jobs and deliver a $500 million economic boost.

One Shi'ite employee told Reuters this week he had been fired despite not taking any days from work to take part in the protests. He said was abused during 20 days in detention and that 27 others dismissed or suspended faced similar treatment.

Zayani denied that some staff of the BCI had been suspended because they were Shi'ite.

But leading Bahraini rights activist Nabeel Rajab criticised the decision to bring back the race.

"We are going to use this event to expose the human rights violations in Bahrain and let the outside world know what's happening here," he said. "Sadly the decision comes at the same time as we buried two people today who were victims of government repression."

Police fired teargas to break up a protest by some 500 people early on Friday shouting "Down with (King) Hamad" and "Gulf forces out" in the district of Sanabis.

The protest began after the funeral of Zainab Ali Altajer, whose family said she died from the effect of a sound bomb during disturbances the day before.

A second funeral was held in Manama for a man who died after spending time in a state hospital for injuries sustained during the protests. They said his body showed signs of torture. An interior ministry statement said he died of natural causes.

Shi'ites say even if the emergency law has ended they suffer from the same security measures to stop them protesting.

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Martial law was imposed in March after the government invited Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops to help break up the protest movement.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Bahraini rights activists had campaigned against reinstating the race in Bahrain, arguing that a heavy crackdown on the protesters during 11 weeks of emergency law should weigh in the decision.

Though the main opposition group Wefaq said it supported the government's efforts to get back Formula One, many ordinary people in Shi'ite villages said they opposed it.

"We at Wefaq support hosting the event. It will force all the stakeholders to come together to find solutions ahead of the event," said Jasim Husain, a senior figure at the Shi'ite group.

But Abdelrazaq, a 47-year-old Shi'ite in the town of Diraz, said after Friday prayers: "How is this atmosphere appropriate for hosting such an event? The security situation should return to normal and people should get their rights."

Shi'ites have been engaged in a game of cat and mouse with security forces since Wednesday, where dozens begin protests in Shi'ite communities away from major highways and public squares, then police storm in to break them up.

This week, the king offered a new dialogue on reform with all sides to begin July. He did not spell out the parameters of the talks but Wefaq and other opposition groups welcomed it.

Sheikh Issa Qassim, the most revered Shi'ite cleric in Bahrain, told worshippers at Friday prayers the opposition would need a popular mandate to enter any talks and suggested the king's offer was not serious.

"Any political society, party or person will need a clear mandate from the street before entering any negotiations," he said. "Domestic security in any country is clear -- it comes from a serious initiative for reform ... The security approach is no longer able to keep people quiet."

(Additional reporting by Hamad Mohammed; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Lin Noueihed)