Bahrain Grand Prix held despite protests

Sebastian Vettel wins race amid security lockdown as fresh protests are held in Manama and London.

Bahrain protests
Anti-government protesters have held several "days of rage" in the run-up to the racing event [Reuters]

Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel has won the Grand Prix in Bahrain while rage boiled beyond the track among protesters who say the ruling family that crushed Arab Spring demonstrations last year should not have hosted the race.

High security kept trouble well away from the track on Sunday, where Red Bull’s 24-year-old driver had started in pole position, before securing the twenty-second triumph of his career, in a race that passed without incident.

As the race came to an end, protesters called for afternoon protests in the capital Manama’s Pearl roundabout, the site of last year’s unrest targeting the ruling al-Khalifa family.

Similar protests were held outside the London offices of Formula One chief, Bernie Ecclestone, with demonstrators chanting “down, down Bernie” and “shame on you Bernie”.

Inside the circuit, however, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Manama said the crowd in the stands were largely foreign expatriates.

“It seems like Bahrainis themselves are choosing to stay away from their Grand Prix” said our correspondent, who cannot be named for security reasons.

Initial reports say attendance at the 45,000 capacity track had fallen through the floor.


Online reports say 10 female activists were able to make it into the circuit area itself before being arrested by police on site.

There were also reports of arrests of foreign journalists – two Japanese journalists covering protests, Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, along with his fixer, and a news team from Britain’s Channel 4 news.

Freeman’s fixer, Mohammed Hassan, who had been detained for the second time in as many days, took to his twitter account following his release to send a message to the nation’s Interior Ministry.

“I’m offering my service for free as a way to express my refusal for @moi_Bahrain continuous abuse, tell any jorno in need of help”, said Hassan using the shorthand that has become synonymous with the popular micro-blogging service.

Opposition activist, Ala’a Shehabi, who had met with Ecclestone in London prior to this weekend’s race has also been detained.

Protesters have also been calling for the release of detained Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, who is on the 74th day of a hunger strike.

At a candlelight vigil in the village of Shakhurah, demonstrators were reported to be carrying pictures of al-Khawaja with them.

Khawaja’s deteriorating health has raised fears that he may die in custody, but Bahrain’s interior ministry said on Sunday that he was in “good health” and would meet Denmark’s ambassador later in the day. Khawaja is a dual citizen of Bahrain and Denmark.

Political problems

Kalil al-Marzooq, a spokesman for al-Wefaq, the country’s main opposition bloc, told Al Jazeera that Bahrainis felt the race was “not a big question”.

“We have political problems. Especially the opposition itself … [is] neutral about this event. We have people being killed. We have demands to return the power to the people rather than concentrating it on to the hands of the rulers,” he said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mansoor al Jamri, editor of the independent Al Wasat newspaper in Bahrain, said Sunday’s race will be a “milestone in the history of the events that we have been going through since last year”, but that the problem in Bahrain is not a matter of security.

Instead, Jamri says “the problem is about political demands … stopping the divisive policies, the discrimination” in the Gulf kingdom.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who was at the race, said that he wanted “to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue amongst all our people”.

As the race got under way, security was tight in Manama, and its surrounding areas, with reports indicating that anti-government protests overnight have resulted in fresh clashes.

Our correspondent said “the highway on the way down to the race track is absolutely covered with police”, and that in the villages outside the capital, it seemed as if a curfew had been put in place, with very few people out on the streets.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters, who responded by throwing stones and fire bombs while chanting slogans against the monarchy, AFP news agency reported.

Protests were reported to have been held in the villages of Malkiya, Karzakan, Sadad and Damistan.

Witnesses said the Sakhir circuit, where Sunday’s race took place, was under complete lockdown, though protesters were briefly able to block some roads leading to the track by setting tyres and garbage on fire.

“The atmosphere [around the Grand Prix] is tense,” said Al Jazeera’s special correspondent, who we cannot name for security reasons, from Manama.

In Manama, police prevented planned protests at a central market, residents and witnesses said.

Dozens of armoured vehicles and security forces in riot gear were deployed along the road to the Bahrain International Circuit and around Manama. Activists said barbed wire was installed near some parts of the main highway.

Protester killed

The latest protests come a day after al-Wefaq, the country’s main opposition bloc, said that a man had been found dead after clashes with riot police in the village of Shakhoura.

Al-Wefaq named the dead demonstrator on Saturday as Salah Abbas Habib, 37, and said his body was found on the roof of a building.

It said Habib was part of a group who were beaten by police during clashes late on Friday night.

Mohammed Eissa, Habib’s brother in law, told the Reuters news agency that police had not allowed the family to see the body when they went to the compound where it was found.

“We wanted to see it before it was taken so we can identify the body, but we were told to go the morgue and identify it there,” Eissa said.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent said that the body was “under police guard in a heavily secured hospital”. 

In a statement on the microblogging website Twitter, the interior ministry confirmed the death and said authorities had launched an investigation into the incident.

Wefaq’s Marzooq said the government was tightly controlling information about Habib’s death.

“All elements of the state are used against the people for repression,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies