By Alexander Dziadosz
KARZAKKAN, Bahrain (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters waved banners and chanted against the Bahrain government on Thursday ahead of this weekend's Formula One race, which the opposition sees as a chance to attract international attention to its pro-democracy campaign.
The Gulf Arab kingdom has arrested several people accused of stealing and burning cars and scaled up security ahead of the Grand Prix, the biggest sporting event hosted by the U.S.-allied country and which is watched by millions around the world.
The protests were not expected to have any effect on qualifying taking place Friday and Saturday at the Sakhir desert circuit about 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital Manama or the race itself on Sunday.
The government is hoping for a healthy turnout this year despite violent unrest that has hit the country since pro-democracy protests started in early 2011.
Protesters and activists accuse the government of trying to use the race to paper over human rights abuses and disguise political problems they say still plague the country.
Some 2,000 to 3,000 demonstrators marched down a highway in Karzakkan, a village just north of the Sakhir circuit, to press that point on Thursday. They held banners reading, "Democracy is our right" and demanded the release of political prisoners.
"Down, down with Al Khalifa," they chanted, referring to the Shi'ite-majority country's Sunni ruling family.
The race was canceled in 2011 when protests were crushed and at least 35 people were killed. Activists put the death toll far higher.
Last year's race went ahead against a backdrop of burning tires and riot police firing teargas at protesters throwing petrol bombs in Shi'ite Muslim villages.
A 44-year-old wholesale trader at the protest who gave his name as Abu Hassan said the government was using the race to hide the need for political change.
"This is marketing, an attempt to say there's no problems in the country. They use this as marketing for the outside world," he said. "The country needs reform from the inside."
The United States has tempered criticism of Bahrain, which it sees as a key ally in the region-wide tussle between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and which hosts its navy's Fifth Fleet.
Last week, Justice Minister Khalid al-Khalifa warned that the race - which Bahrain pays an estimated $40 million a year to host - should not be "politicized".
"I believe that anyone who is really putting the interest of his country in front of his eyes will see Formula One as an opportunity," he told Reuters.
"It also raised Bahrain's name all over the world and it is very important for us to keep this sport away from any kind of politicization," he said.
Bahrain's state news agency said late on Wednesday that authorities had arrested a man who later confessed to an incident in which a car burned and exploded in the country's financial district on April 14.
Four other people accused of stealing and burning a car near a roundabout were also arrested and another person was detained over an accusation he blocked a main road and caused damage to a Bahraini's car.
Amnesty International said human rights activists claimed dozens of protesters had been arrested ahead of the race.
"It's getting worse because of the Formula One," said Rula al-Saffal, a human rights campaigner, at the Karzakkan march, as hundreds of women in full black dresses and headscarves marched past. "They want all the activists in jail."
Human Rights Watch said on April 10 that police had arrested 20 opposition activists in towns near the circuit with the apparent intention of preventing a repeat of the 2012 protests.
The government denied those arrests had taken place. It also denied accusations by rights groups that it uses excessive force in cracking down on protests and says it arrests suspects in accordance with the rule of law.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by William Maclean and Sonya Hepinstall)