By William Fisher
As the leader of Bahrain’s human rights movement hovers between life and death amidst a 67-day hunger strike against government autocracy, the lieutenants of this tiny country’s self-appointed king are doubling down on their pitch that the oil-rich monarchy the ideal place for Formula One Racing despite more than a year of violent unrest.
That unrest, which led to widespread arrests, torture, and more than 60 deaths, led to the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2011. The issue now is whether the 2012 race will ever happen. It is expected to bring $300 million into the country.
But while the race promoters and the government – and their PR machines – are trumpeting the thrills and fun of Formula One Racing, Bahrain’s human rights community, and some of the Grand Prix drivers, have taken an opposite view.
They charge that Bahrain remains a serial violator of human rights despite promises of reform and shouldn’t be hosting high-profile sporting events.
This week, David Rosenberg of The Media Line reported:
“A flurry of reports and petitions and other measures are on the way this week in a last-ditch effort to block the Formula One race scheduled for April 20-22. But Bahrain’s rulers are ahead so far: The Federation Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of motor sports, broke its silence in the matter and on Friday gave the go-ahead for the race to proceed on schedule.
“There is a lot more at stake than being first past the checkered flag. The chronic unrest and the government crackdown has put Bahrain into the crosshairs of the global human rights movement and weighed heavily on the economy. Staging a successful race would signal that the country’s problems are behind it and, according to the race’s local organizers, will pump almost $300 million into the economy and create the equivalent of 400 full-time jobs.”
But the Arab-Spring uprising of Bahrain’s Shiite majority against their Sunni monarch is still in full swing, despite reports to the contrary in the state-owned press. On Friday, the group organizing the race said in a statement that it should go ahead as scheduled.
But on the same day, Media Line reported that a 14-year-old boy was shot in the chest and another youth was in critical condition after being beaten during clashes between police and mourners. They were attending the funeral of a man shot during anti-government protests two weeks earlier.
Last week an explosion injured at least seven policemen in Ekar, south of the capital of Manama, a place where security forces and protesters frequently clash. In response, last Wednesday, mobs with iron rods and sticks ransacked a supermarket belonging to a major Shiite-owned business group.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said the authorities were cracking down on opposition protestors ahead of the race, staging arrests and attacking demonstrators that he alleged was intended to ensure they were still convalescing by the time the Grad Prix begins, April 20.
He said peaceful and legal protests are planned during the race even as he held out hope that the last minute campaign would convince the race organizers to cancel.
“They have put profits and their interests before human rights. The situation [in Bahrain] has worsened. The number of people who were killed from the beginning of the year till now is more than people killed last year,” Rajab told The Media Line. If the race goes as planned, it will earn an image as the ‘a sport of dictators’,” he added.
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) reported over the weekend on the condition of Abdulhadi Abdulla Al-Khawaja, whose hunger strike reached its 67th day. The report advised the Bahraini authorities and Alkhawaja’s legal representative that Al-Khawaja is at risk of death if the hunger strike continues for any extended period. The government should also restate a commitment to ethical health care for Mr. Abdulhadi Abdulla Al-Khawaja while he is refusing food, including a commitment not to force feed him.
It said that, despite the ill-treatment to which Abdulhadi Abdulla Al-Khawaja has been subjected and the effects of prolonged food refusal, he should be able to recover from his period of fasting if he agrees to take food voluntarily very soon. On the other hand, he could suffer a serious downturn in health if he continues to refuse food, with death being imminent after more than nine weeks of hunger strike.
The government should also express a willingness to address the grievances of the prisoner since these are the core issues driving the hunger strike, the report said.
The Bahraini leaders will lose no time in telling the press that they have gone to extraordinary lengths to show that they embrace reform and wish a dialogue with protestors. The King even took the unheard-of step of appointing a task force headed by a distinguished Egyptian judge to investigate the entire uprising and recommend ways of restoring peace.
The judge reported directly to the King, saying he had found evidence of people being tortured in detention, security police firing tear gas and live rounds at peaceful protesters, and some 4,000 protestors being dismissed from their jobs, losing their university places, and being arrested and jailed. Those arrested and imprisoned include the heads of the teacher’s and nurse’s unions and many of the country’s prominent physicians.
Numerous non-governmental observers have reported that, while there seem to be a profusion of meetings being scheduled, virtual nothing in the way of reforms is becoming tangible.
One of Al-Khawaja’s daughter’s, Zainab, has been in and out of prison over the past year. She has been an active participant in peaceful demonstrations. The country’s Shia majority has been demonstrating against what they consider to be the government’s discrimination against them in securing top jobs, better housing, and bank credit.
Bahrain enjoys strategic prominence in the Gulf, as it is the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet.
The pressure on Bahrain has grown intense and appears poised to continue. Shortly before the Grand Prix, Amnesty International will publish a report
documenting “patterns of human rights violations” and providing testimonies of “victims of human rights violations who are still awaiting justice.” Amnesty says hundreds of protesters are still in prison after being tried unfairly in military courts, dozens for life. The government’s promise to reinstate all those who have been dismissed from work or university for participating in protests is yet to be fulfilled, it said.
Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders is launching an on-line petition condemning Bahrain’s “appallingly repressive policies.”
Physicians for Human Rights, meanwhile, has been pressing for release of al-Khawaja, the hunger-striker, who has been sentenced to life in prison.
Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said he thought the FIA organizers should think twice.
“This seems to be a terrible climate in which to hold what is supposed to be a competitive, festive sporting event. In the circumstances, I don't know who is going to be having any fun,” Stork said.
Meanwhile, the government’s US and UK-based PR firms continued to make their pitch. At home, local organizers have been sending the official race mascot to schools around the country to gin up enthusiasm for the race.
But overseas media have also shown considerable interest in the story. Media Line reported that McLaren team drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button walked out of Friday’s press conference when a reporter began question with, “Sixty people have died in 12 months…” A press handler stepped in before the report could ask the questions and announced, “They’ve got to go…” ushering them out of the room. The team is 40%-owned by Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund.
The ambivalence of the drivers is exemplified by sports commentator Damon Hill, the 1996 Formula One champion. In early April, he told the British newspaper, The Guardian, he had misgivings about the race. “It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race. That is not what this sport hould be about.”
But a day after the FIA decision he changed his mind.
“All the arguments have been made for and against. Human rights organizations have had their cases heard. No one is under any illusions about the situation. But the less vocal majority of Bahrainis also have a right to get on with their lives and we also have a responsibility to our F1 fans in the region,” Hill said a statement issued by a Bahrain International Circuit, the local Formula One sponsor.
At least 35 people died during protests in February-March 2011, including five security officers. More than 4,000 people, among them teachers, students, nurses and people working for the local Formula One sponsor, were dismissed from their jobs or university for taking part in the anti-government protests.
Last year, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ordered a force led by Saudi Arabia to travel the short causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to quell the disturbances.