As Sunday's Formula One race in Bahrain approaches, civil unrest in the small Gulf kingdom has reportedly intensified. Germany's top human rights official has asked Bahrain to free political prisoners.
Anti-government activists in Bahrain, mostly from the Shia majority, have reported more arrests and pledged further protests to mark the Formula One motorsport event taking place between Friday and Sunday.
The kingdom of Bahrain, rocked by massive street protests early last year in the opening phases of the so-called Arab Spring, has been the site of smaller, but almost daily clashes ever since.
Several local rights groups have said in recent days that protest actions, and subsequent arrests, are intensifying as the restless country is thrust into the global spotlight.
Massive protests, and their subsequent suppression, ultimately stopped the 2011 race
"About 80 people from several villages near [the capital] Manama have been arrested since April 14," the president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, Mohammed Maskati, said in an interview with the AFP agency, calling the arrests a "preventative measure."
Amnesty and Germany speak out
Germany's top human rights official, Markus Löning, also told AFP that there were still "a few hundred protestors in prison" more than a year after the major demonstrations.
"They must be freed," Löning said.
Amnesty International released a report this week saying that torture was still being practiced in prisons in Bahrain, also mentioning the continued imprisonment of key protest figures.
"With the world's eyes on Bahrain as it prepares to host the Grand Prix, no one should be under any illusions that the country's human rights crisis is over," Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, Hassiba Hadj, said.
Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni royal family, with the majority Shia population saying they are subject to economic and political discrimination in the small, oil-rich kingdom.
So-called sanctioning fees, paid by host countries or circuits in order to stage a race, are a key source of income for Formula One, along with revenues from broadcasting contracts and sponsors. The funds raised are used to distribute prize money to the teams and to service debts taken out by the "owners" - long-term leaseholders, to be more precise - of the sport's commercial rights, CVC Capital Partners. The debts stem from loans taken out to purchase the lease in 2005.
These sanctioning fees are not publicly disclosed, but are thought to average around $25 million per race, with Bahrain believed to be an above-average contributor. The kingdom of Bahrain's state-owned holding company for non-oil and gas strategic assets, Mumtalakat, also owns at least a 40 percent stake in top F1 team McLaren.
No safety concerns, no cancelation
World motorsport's governing body, the FIA, issued a press release last Friday confirming that the race would go ahead.
"Based on the current information the FIA has at this stage, it is satisfied that all the proper security measures are in place for the running of a Formula One World Championship event in Bahrain," the statement said. "Therefore, the FIA confirms that the 2012 Gulf Air F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain will go ahead as scheduled."
FIA President Jean Todt, once of Ferrari, said the race would not be stopped on safety grounds
Due to its apolitical status, enforced in its own charter and by French law, the Paris-based organization could only have canceled the race on safety grounds - its primary motorsports mandate besides setting and enforcing the rules of competition.
The prospect of public protests against the race in Bahrain, coupled with a campaign in favor of the race called "UNIF1ED" (with "F1" replacing the "f" and "i") - officially adopted by the race organizers at the Bahrain International Circuit - have called the event's apolitical nature into question.
F1's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone said over the weekend Bahrain's problems would not stop if the race were cancelled, also saying that the 12 teams and their personnel - most of whom have been in Manama since early in the week - were happy to attend.
The 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was first delayed and then ultimately abandoned. Strictly speaking, however, it was not canceled. Amid mounting pressure, the race organizers announced at the eleventh hour that they would forego the 2011 race "so that the country can focus on its process of national dialog."
The inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix was held in 2004, and was heralded by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as part of an economic reform program designed to promote Bahrain and attract outside investment.
msh/mr (AFP, AP, Reuters)