Sakhir, Bahrain: Formula One returns this week to Bahrain, casting the spotlight on a series that has defied criticism to race on while a bloody, political crisis has engulfed one of the West's most important allies in the region.
The Bahrain Grand Prix has drawn less attention than a year ago when F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone at the last minute decided to go ahead with the race despite calls by some rights groups for a boycott. But criticism has intensified in the past week, after explosions sparked security concerns and a Human Rights Watch last week alleged that authorities rounded up activists living around the track in a bid to "silence" dissent ahead of Sunday's race.
Amnesty International also criticised a decree that imposes penalties of up to five years in prison for insulting the Gulf state's king or its national symbols, while a group of British parliamentarians sent a letter to Ecclestone calling for the race to be cancelled.
"I think most democratic-minded people would be appalled if you allowed the Bahrain leg of the Formula One championship to go ahead amid the most atrocious human rights violations," the All Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Bahrain said in the letter.
Organisers understandably would like the focus to be on the track, where another wide-open season is unfolding after Ferrari's Fernando Alonso won the Chinese Grand Prix to become the third winner in as many GPs. Much of the racing focus will be on Alonso, who ended a 12-race drought in Shanghai last weekend and is aiming to offer further proof in Bahrain that the Ferrari can compete this year with three-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel.
Ecclestone, as he has done in years past, has insisted that the circuit is safe and that the race would go on. Speaking in China, Ecclestone told reporters he had sympathy for both sides and was hopeful the race would go off peacefully.
"If we hear about anything that goes on and it's bad, for sure we don't want to be in that country," Ecclestone said. "Don't forget when we had apartheid in South Africa; I was the one who pulled the race, so I'm the last guy to help out with this."
Organisers have tried to play down the unrest, insisting ticket sales are up 20 percent from last year and emphasising how the race could help unify the country and bring in much-needed tourist revenue - with some $220 million generated from the race.
"Motor racing in Bahrain is a sport which has had support from all parts of Bahrain society for many years," said the circuit chief executive Sheik Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, noting that 77 percent of people in a survey supported the race. It remains to be seen how many fans will come to Bahrain amid tight security and expectations of daily clashes between Sunni-led authorities and majority Shiites seeking a greater political voice.
Bahrain authorities this week said they would step up security following a gas cylinder blast that set a car ablaze in the financial district. The attacks caused no injuries and limited damage but sent a message that anti-government militants could step up violence before Sunday's race.
Security forces early on Tuesday fired tear gas into a high school to break up a protest of students demonstrating against the detention of a classmate overnight. The increased security was on display on Tuesday, with armoured vehicles and checkpoints dotting Manama and helicopters flying overhead. There was also increased police on the highway leading to the Bahrain International Circuit to prevent protesters from blocking roads with burning tires.
The race last year went off incident-free, but it was overshadowed by the huge anti-government protests and a firebomb that briefly delayed a Force India car and prompted the team to pull out of the second practice.
Much the same as 2012, the teams have mostly dodged the question of racing in Bahrain. However, Franz Tost, team principal of Toro Rosso, endorsed the race going ahead. "I don't see any problems going to Bahrain," Tost said. "I'm looking forward to going there. Formula One is entertainment. We should not be involved in politics. We should go there, do our race."
But 1996 world champion Damon Hill has demanded that FIA president Jean Todt take an ethical stance on Bahrain hosting the race. "He's not said anything that has distanced the sport from things that it would find distasteful and upsetting, which I believe everybody in the sport would actually like to do," Hill told British reporters in Shanghai last week.
"I think the vast majority of the people in Formula One would like to say 'We don't want to come here to make things worse for people. We would like you to enjoy Formula One, we think Formula One has lots of positive things to offer, but please don't, on our behalf, round up people and brutalise them'," he said.
The competing messages over F1 were on full display this week in the Bahrain capital Manama, where huge signs promoting the race contrasted with the tear gas and angry, anti-government chants echoing through some Shiite-majority villages.
Carrying portraits of some of those killed in the nearly three-year uprising and signs calling for a boycott of F1, protesters on Monday warned those attending the race will effectively have blood on their hands.
"Our message to the world is to say you are racing on our blood," said Sadiq Yousef, a 44-year-old protester. "Before, I was not protesting. But after my wife and daughter were attacked, I realised the regime was starting to treat us like slaves."
Most protesters seemed to be resigned to the fact the race would go on but were hopeful that it will shed light and revive interest in a conflict that has largely been overshadowed by the civil war in Syria and post-revolution unrest in Egypt.
"We are demanding democracy. It is our right," said Hussain al-Ghanmi, another protester. "We will keep marching in the streets until our voices are heard around the world. I think the international community will support our demands because we are demanding our rights."
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