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Bahrainis Protest Ahead Of F1 Motor Racing Event

posted 18 Apr 2013, 14:47 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 18 Apr 2013, 14:48 ]

Hundreds of protesters waved banners and chanted against the Bahrain government ahead of this weekend's Formula One race, which the opposition sees as a chance to attract international attention to its pro-democracy campaign.

MANAMABAHRAIN (APRIL 18, 2013) (REUTERS) -  Bahrain's capital city saw unrest on Thursday (April 18) ahead of the weekend's Formula One race. Traffic came to a halt after protesters burned tires in the middle of a Manama street. Police were seen putting out flames and clearing the road before cars could drive through.

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.

According to Sheikh Ali Salman, the Secretary General of the al-Wefaq National Islamic SocietyBahrain has fundamental political problems which need to be addressed.

"Some times action is taken not just for economic purposes but also political -- they seek (Bahrain government) to say that there is no political problem inBahrain. We have an objection to this point. Bahrain has a fundamental political problem -- well known to the world -- in which there is tyranny and rejection of democracy," he said in an interview with Reuters Television.

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.

. 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.

"Down, down with Al Khalifa," protesters chanted, referring to the Shi'ite-majority country's Sunni ruling family.

"A message to the organizer of the Formula: the country is not safe and needs reform and then we will prepare the ground for the Formula in the best way possible and prepare for the arrival of tourists and the Formula participants in bigger volume than this," said Shi'ite protester, Abu Hassan.

The race was cancelled 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 tyres and riot police firing teargas at protesters throwing petrol bombs in Shi'ite Muslim villages.

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 asSaudi Arabia and which hosts its navy's Fifth Fleet.

Last week, Justice Minister Khalid al-Khalifa warned that the race - which Bahrainpays an estimated $40 million a year to host - should not be "politicised".

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.

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