1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Surreal race

April 22, 2012

Business and tourists pour back into the tiny Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain to watch the F1 circus. But the gleaming cars and cheering race crowds are in stark contrast to what’s going on behind the scenes.

Image: Reuters

In Manama's less-visible Shia neighborhoods anti-government protesters are being tortured, tear-gassed and arrested on a nightly basis.

"It's surreal that an international Grand Prix is taking place in a country where human rights abuses abound," Richard Sollom, who tracks Bahrain at Washington-based watchdog Physicians for Human Rights, told DW. "The people attending the race will never see it. The government has done a great job walling off the areas where there's tear gas being used."

Flying into Bahrain last month, the heavy turbulence in the skies above the island nation seemed to echo ongoing strife on the ground.

Opposition societies and international rights groups had beseeched British Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone not to return the race to Manama, claiming its staging gives the regime legitimacy despite the egregious human rights offenses - including torture - it has carried out against its detractors.

In February, Ecclestone dismissed the opposition as "a lot of kids having a go at the police."

"It doesn't change our position in any shape or form. If the [Bahrain government] say[s], 'Look Bernie, it wouldn't be good for you to come over here,' then I would think again. That is what they said last year."

Since last February, when a global audience watched security helicopters hover over unarmed protesters in the Pearl Square roundabout, media coverage of the revolution in this US ally has slowed to a trickle.

The government has repeatedly denied visas to nearly all foreign media, including requests to attend this week's race.

Cruel crackdown

With the world's back all but turned, the crackdown on anti-government activists continues to intensify. Reports of nightly tear gas suffocation, torture and closed-door kangaroo trials come daily from activists and watchdog groups.

To ready the country for its F1 visitors - who are expecting to see a pre-Arab Spring, "business-friendly" Bahrain - activist leaders said security forces escalated their activity this week in a pre-race sweep, with more than 60 leading activists arrested.

A Riffa protester recovers from tear gas
Security forces have been using tear gas indiscriminatelyImage: DW/K.Leigh

"The crackdown has become harsher because of F1, so in part we're blaming them for the injuries and arrests," Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told DW. "We received reports that young boys were arrested and tortured in prison, some as young as 17. So we're definitely putting it on the shoulders of Ecclestone and F1."

Activists reported that live ammunition was used this week, for the first time since brutal March 2011 clashes in the now-destroyed Pearl roundabout, the revolution's ground zero.

"This has never happened in the world, where a country uses tear gas over such a long time, in such concentrated areas," said Richard Sollom. Despite the cars speeding around its famous track, "Bahrain will go down in history as the country where they abused the population with this toxic lethal gas."

Also troubling are suggestions the regime could take its aggressive targeting of protesters to a new level.

"You never know with Bahrain, you never know what they're going to do," al-Khawaja said. "They're setting up cameras and recording people protesting. My hunch is they're going to revenge hunt the protesters."

'Streets will explode'

Maryam is the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, arguably the movement's most well-known leader, who received a life prison sentence last year for his role in the uprising. As of Friday, he was on day 72 of a hunger strike, in a hospital bed in Manama.

A protester holding a placard with the picture of rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and the words 'freedom or martyrdom' written in Arabic
Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaj Manama has been on hunger strike for 72 daysImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"My dad is OK as he can be," Maryam said. "He's only drinking water. He stopped the fluids and IV. We're very worried. But my dad will always be my dad. He called my mom today and asked for a copy of Foreign Policy."

Sollom's Physicians for Human Rights has been tracking both the hunger strike the cases of tens of Bahraini medical workers who have gone missing or are on trial after aiding injured protesters.

"Two weeks ago, two Danish physicians came and medically evaluated him," Sollom said of al-Khawaja. (The once-exiled activist has a home in Copenhagen and holds Danish citizenship.) "Then the government said he was all healthy. I just don't know if I buy that, because a hunger striker only receiving IV fluids can only survive for a matter of anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. In other words, if he only receives IV fluid - and that is his will - it's possible that he may die very soon."

One Manama activist tweeted that if the leader were to die, "the streets will explode."

While al-Khawaja's now-skeletal frame lies in bed, Ecclestone and thousands of jet-setters celebrate nearby. Al-Khawaja's drastic measure is in stark contrast to the government's pre-race "everything here is fine" motto.

"We're very concerned. The only viable option is to release him. He's a prisoner of conscience. He's also a Danish citizen, and the [Bahrain] government could have saved face by allowing him last week to go to Denmark. A Danish Ambassador came to Manama to bring him back to Copenhagen. Everyone believed he was going to be released. So it's really unfortunate," Sollom said.

Al-Khawaja's plight has put Bahrain's opposition back in the headlines for the first time in months - though for those not following the crisis, the F1's return to the island will be enough to convince them that everything here is, as the government's spokespeople suggest, back to normal.

Masked government media staffers film the protests
Masked government media staffers film the protestsImage: DW/K.Leigh

"It's like putting salt on the wounds," said Maryam al-Khawaja. "We're tweeting about people dying and being tortured and visitors are saying 'it's beautiful here, I'm going for a swim.' It's an insult."

Author: Karen Leigh, Bahrain, Berlin
Editor: Rob Mudge