/ Motorsport

Protests continue ahead of Grand Prix

Updated: Tuesday, 17 Apr 2012 18:38

Controversy continues to dog the Bahrain Grand Prix
Controversy continues to dog the Bahrain Grand Prix

Anti-Formula One banners were carried by protesters in the latest rally to be staged in Bahrain.

Unlike yesterday's demonstration in Salmabad that culminated in violent clashes between police and rioters, today's event in Al Dair on the outskirts of the airport ended peacefully.

This was the more acceptable face of protesting in Bahrain as a 5,000-strong crowd made their voices heard without resorting to throwing petrol bombs and stones at riot police.

On this occasion the pro-democracy throng was spearheaded by a group of children carrying a banner, 12 feet by four, with the words 'Our demand: Freedom - Not: Formula 1'.

It also sported the F1 trademark, with the 'F' replaced by a smoking sub-machine gun.

Predominantly, of course, the protesters called for the end of the reign of King Hamad as they seek democratic reform and an end to reported human rights injustices.

Police maintained a watching vigil on the perimeter, and were ultimately not required once the hour-long march came to an end.
One protester, who spoke to Press Association Sport, said: "We hope this sends out a big message to Formula One."

A former leading Bahraini politician, meanwhile, has claimed there are "fears we could see some casualties" during the course of this weekend's race.

Economist Jasim Husain represented the primary opposition group, Al-Wefaq, for five years prior to resigning in protest following the anti-government demonstrations that rocked the country last year.

Husain did so, along with 17 others, in the hope of pressing the authorities to seek solutions currently dividing Bahrain.

However, 14 months on from the 'Day of Rage' that resulted in the deaths of many protesters, such reforms appear too slow in coming given the publication of a 58-page report into Bahrain by Amnesty International.

The leading human rights organisation insist "not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown" last year.

Given the daily clashes between police and protesters, there are concerns the latter will use F1's arrival and its global reach to ram home their message.

Although the majority do demonstrate peacefully, there are groups such as the Coalition Youth of the 14 Feb Revolution who have said "three days of anger" will occur this weekend.

As to the form of such anger and how closely it touches F1 given an anticipated security crackdown, that remains to be seen.

From Husein's perspective, he suggests one serious incident would be "very likely" to hit F1's presence hard in Bahrain, and it is up to the authorities to ensure they do not over-react.

Husein, insisting his views are his own and not that of Al-Wefaq, said: "I don't see lots of protests throughout the country, especially outside the vicinity of the racing area.

"But yes, there is this fear, the fear is there that we could see some casualties.

"So it's now a challenge for the security forces who have to handle things properly. They should avoid using force.

"Of course, people should be free to express their views, but the responsibility is with the authorities who have to show professionalism in managing any protest.

"The good thing is people are peaceful, protesters are peaceful, that violence is not really any particular part of the political challenge in the country.

"But things have to be handled properly by the authorities."
F1's rulers have naturally been eager to distance themselves from the political or moral argument, although there is the suggestion it is being used as a tool for the former.

Given the daily protests against the ruling Bahraini regime, operating under the slogan 'UniF1ed - One Nation in Celebration' would appear to underline F1's significance when it comes to purporting all is well, when it is far from the case.

Instead, FIA president Jean Todt asserts his organisation "are only interested in sport not politics", with Husein believing it wrong F1 is portrayed as being in support of the ruling al-Khalifa royal family.

"That's the problem really. It should not be presented this way," said Husein.

"F1 is a sport, an economic positive, and I hope neither side will see the race as a political tool.

"We do have political issues which have to be addressed, and F1 coming or not coming does not mean those problems will go away.

"But certainly this is not a political event and should not have political implications.
"However, we are suffering from this problem because it is being presented this way.
"People are simply pressing for democratic reforms, and ensuring there is equal opportunity for all, to have real participation in decision making."

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