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Monday 16 April 2012

Bahrain Grand Prix Splits the Kingdom By SOUAD MEKHENNET

April 13, 2012
Bahrain Grand Prix Splits the Kingdom

MANAMA, BAHRAIN "Unif1ed: One nation in celebration" is the slogan of the Bahrain Grand Prix, scheduled to take place April 22.

But unity has been difficult to achieve in this Gulf kingdom, which has been split apart by a year-long protest seeking greater political freedom for Shiites.

After the race was canceled last year because of the clashes between protesters and the police and concerns about safety and security, the government has been eager to showcase the event this year as a symbol of tranquility.

But turmoil, particularly outside the capital of Manama, has persisted and doubts about whether the race this year would take place have dogged preparations. Protests flared Friday as several thousand Bahrainis marched after an announcement that the race would take place. "Down with Hamad!" chanted some marchers, referring to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Reuters reported. Several other rallies were planned.

Anti-government groups have protested against the race taking place this year. "It would be the wrong message to the regime," said Farida Ghulam Ismail, a member of the opposition whose husband, Ibrahim Sharif, is in jail. "People are still in jail for demanding more rights in this country and there is extensive use of tear gas against protesters."

Zainab al-Khawaja, daughter of Abdelhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on a hunger strike for 65 days, said in an interview for the German news magazine Der Spiegel that protesters would persist in their demands even if the race took place. "How can a country heal if it's still bleeding?" she asked. "The government is not doing anything for the country to heal. The government is just making cosmetic changes."

Khawaja's father, who is Bahraini and Danish, was sentenced to life in prison on anti-state crimes last year as the kingdom imposed martial law to quell political unrest.

Seven Bahraini police officers were wounded Monday, three of them seriously, when a home-made bomb exploded. On Wednesday, a mob armed with iron rods and sticks ransacked a supermarket belonging to a Shiite-owned business group in retaliation for the bombing

In the street battles that have continued for more than a year, nearly 50 people have died.

Some insist that there is little to worry about regarding Bahrain and the race. John Yates, a former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police in London who have been hired to oversee an overhaul of the Bahrain police force, said that he felt safe in the kingdom. "Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London," he said Wednesday, according to Reuters.

During an interview, Yates said that tear gas was the only weapon the riot police carried. "They don't carry any guns, while protesters in the villages are throwing Molotov cocktails and stones," he said.

"Some people have recently told stories to media that never took place and give the impression that Bahrain is a war zone, and it's not," Yates said.

The boss of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, said Friday in Shanghai, where he was overseeing preparations for the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday, that the Bahrain race was definitely going ahead as planned and that all of the teams were "happy" to be going there, The Associated Press reported.

"There's nothing happening," Ecclestone said of the situation in Bahrain. "I know people that live there and it's all very quiet and peaceful."

The race has its supporters in Bahrain. "I really hope the race will take place this year," said Ebrahim Nusaif, 36. A professional volleyball player who is a Shiite with four young children, Nusaif also was a racetrack organizer who lost his job because he went to the heart of the protests the Pearl Roundabout last year during working hours, to see, in his words, "what was going on."

"I think it would help our nation to heal. This is sports, not politics," he said, referring to the discussions on whether the Formula One race should take place.

The furor over the race leaves some confused. "I don't understand this," said Fayez Ramzy Fayez, president of the Bahrain Marshals Club, a group of 1,000 volunteers, including doctors and nurses.

"We are people of all kinds of backgrounds, Shiite, Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Hindus this is Bahrain," said Mr. Fayez, who is Catholic. His parents migrated in 1950 from Egypt to Bahrain, where he was born.

He said that no other country in the Middle East would offer other religions similar freedom. "This Grand Prix is not for one sect or one family, it is for all Bahrainis," he said. "If it would not take place this year, it would be a huge disaster also for the morale of people."

Nearly 30 people had lost their jobs at the Formula One circuit for attending protests last year. "All of them are back in their jobs and we treat them as part of the Bahraini Formula One family," said Zayed Alzayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit.

"Mistakes were made, yes," Mr. Alzayani said. "We have learned our lessons. We had an independent inquiry and have started with serious reforms."

Besides the mistakes that took a personal toll, there have been economic costs. Since the uprising began on Feb. 14, 2011, Bahrain has experienced economic losses, as tourists and businesses steered clear of the country. The racing event itself is worth $250 million to $400 million to Bahrain, Mr. Alzayani said.

Taking a stance against human rights abuses in Bahrain while racing in China could lead to accusations of a double standard, given Beijing's human rights record, while the sport can hardly claim any moral high ground after the headline-grabbing scandals of recent years.

"We don't deal with the religion or the politics," Ecclestone said Thursday. "It's not our business running the country."

Nusaif said he believed it was time a balm was applied to a torn kingdom. "The whole nation has suffered and I think it's enough for the sake of our children," he said.

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