Formula One or Freedom in Bahrain

SUBHEAD: "Our government is brutal and run by a greedy family, who cares only about power and money, not its people." By Dave Zirin on 9 April 2012 for The Nation - ( Image above: Aerial view of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix track scheduled for race on 22 April 2012. From (

On April 22, the royal family of Bahrain is determined to stage its annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race. This might not sound like scintillating news, but whether the event goes off as planned is a question with major ramifications for the royal Khalifa family, as well as for the democracy movement in the gulf kingdom. It will also be viewed closely by the US State Department and human rights organizations across the globe. From a renowned prisoner on a two-month hunger strike to a British billionaire fascist sympathizer, the sides have been sharply drawn.

For the Bahraini royals, staging the Formula 1 race is a chance to show the people that normalcy has returned following last year’s massive pro-democracy protests. In 2011, the race was cancelled to the rage of the royals. Now, the royal family is hoping that the sixty people slaughtered by Bahraini and Saudi forces, as well as the thousands arrested and tortured, can be forgotten in the roar of the engines.

For those protesting in the name of expanded political and personal freedoms, the return of the F1 racing series as a slap in the face, given all they’ve suffered in the last year and continue to suffer today. Now the protest movement and human rights organizations are calling upon Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of Formula 1 Grand Prix, to cancel the race.

Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said:

The government promised changes last year but no changes have taken place because there is no incentive to make them. And tortures are still taking place. The government want the message to go out that it is business as usual. But today armored vehicles went into residential areas for the first time since last year’s martial law ended in June. I have heard reports of protesters being thrown from rooftops and others having legs broken. That it is why Formula One should make a stand and call this race off.

At a mass anti-F1 rally, Ali Mohammed commented to the AP, “We don’t want Formula [1] in our country. They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent? No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race.”

Then there is prominent activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than fifty days. Calls for his immediate release have merged with calls for the F1 cancellation. Protesters are described as holding al-Khawaja’s picture in one hand, and a “no to F1” sign in the other.

1996 F1 champion Damon Hill of the UK, who is now a commentator for Sky News also expressed his concern, saying, “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 should be about. Looking at it today you’d have to say that [the race] could be creating more problems than it’s solving.”

One might think that all of this would pose a moral and ethical quandary for 81-year-old Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone. One would be wrong. The multi-billionaire Ecclestone, the fourth richest man in England, has done little more than roll his eyes. In February, when hundreds were arrested and tortured for protesting on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, he was asked if the F1 race would be pulled. He said, “I expected there was going to be a big uprising today, with the anniversary. But I think what happened, apparently, was that here were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don’t think it’s anything serious at all.”

In March, Ecclestone said of the plans for Bahrain, “It’s business as usual. I don’t think the people who are trying to demonstrate a little bit are going to use anything to do with F1. If they did they would be a little bit silly…. The good thing about Bahrain is it seems more democratic there than most places. People are allowed to speak when they want, they can protest if they want to.” There is no word as to what color the sky is in Ecclestone’s world or if at the conclusion of this interview, he released the hounds.

Not to shock anyone, but this 81-year-old British billionaire has in the past expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler, and by “past” I mean 2009. During an interview in July of that year, Ecclestone said, “Apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people able to get things done…. If you have a look at a democracy it hasn’t done a lot of good for many countries—including this one.”

This is an ugly twisted old brute, but say this for him: at least he commented when asked about Bahrain. That’s far more that we can say for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, wrote, “President Obama…loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain.” This isn’t just oversight or happenstance. Bahrain happily houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and has pledged to do so for another fifty years. It appears that this favor has bought silence and that’s exactly why we need to be loud. The call has gone out form inside of Bahrain to call upon Formula 1 to cancel this race. We should do our part.

Formula One Power Struggle By AP Staff on 5 April 2012 for the Washington Examiner - ( Image above: A child carried past a wall with protest poster depicting Bahrain's King Hamad in a F1 race car, and calling for a boycott of this year's grand prix. From original article. A year after an anti-government revolt forced Bahrain's rulers to cancel the kingdom's coveted Formula One race, the grand prix is again smack in the middle of a power struggle.

Protesters aiming to break the Sunni regime's grip on power have stepped up their campaign against the event — holding rallies across the island, plastering anti-Formula One posters on walls and criticizing the F1 chief and race drivers on social media websites.

The country's leadership is determined to stage the April 22 race as it seeks to show signs of stability nearly 14 months after the country's Shiite majority began a sustained uprising seeking a greater voice in the kingdom's affairs of the kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

But opposition supporters are equally determined to spoil the party and instead draw attention to their grievances.

"We don't want Formula One in our country," Ali Mohammed said during a recent rally against the Bahrain GP in the capital, Manama. "They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent?"

"No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race," he added.

Human rights groups also have criticized the decision of the world racing body to reinstate the Bahrain race this year. Bahrain's Shiite majority is demanding more rights and opportunities, equal to the Sunni minority that rules Bahrain.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights to grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces. Although the F1 race is the island's premier international event, many Bahrainis see it as a vanity project of the rulers, who are behind the crackdown on dissent.

The race was canceled last year after the authorities imposed martial law and launched a punishing crackdown on dissent. At least 50 people have been killed and hundreds have been tried on anti-state charges in a special security court, including more than 100 athletes, coaches and sports officials. Dozens of those have been sentenced to prison terms, including a prominent human rights activist who is serving a life sentence for his role in the uprising.

The activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been on hunger strike for more than 50 days. Opposition supporters rally every day for his release, often carrying al-Khawaja's picture along with posters calling for the cancellation of the F1 race.

Human rights organizations have warned Bahraini authorities that al-Khawaja may die and appealed to those involved in the race to stay away.

"It is impossible to imagine that the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead if Abdulhadi al-Khawaja dies on hunger strike in prison," said Mary Lawlor, the Executive Director of Ireland-based rights organization Front Line Defenders. "The Bahraini authorities clearly want to present an image of business as usual but their seeming indifference to the plight of Abdulhadi risks tragic consequences."

In February, an opposition group that has been the driving force of the yearlong uprising warned the F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone against staging the Bahrain race "at a time when children are being killed in the streets." The grand prix's return to the Gulf kingdom will "imprint it with the image of death and human rights violations," the group said.

Race organizers, however, remain committed to staging next month's Bahrain GP, which has a worldwide TV audience of around 100 million in 187 countries. The annual race has been Bahrain's most profitable international event since 2004, when it became the first Arab country to stage the Grand Prix.

Last month, F1 world champions Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher backed the decision to go ahead with the Bahrain GP despite opposition and almost daily street confrontations between security forces and opposition supporters.

Ecclestone also has dismissed the continued unrest and the opposition to the race saying "it's all nonsense," after lunching with the Bahrain International Circuit executives in London last week.

"Of course the race is going to happen. No worries at all," Ecclestone said.

Racing officials in the Gulf kingdom were glowing after Ecclestone's endorsement. The circuit's chief executive, Sheik Salman bin Isa Al-Khalifa, told The Associated Press that the F1 was a force of good, and that it will boost the country's battered economy and help the deeply divided communities of Shiites and Sunnis move toward reconciliation.

Many Bahrainis agree that the race will at least bring some sense of normality back to the U.S.-allied island nation that has been the Gulf's oasis of openness and modernity before Dubai became the region's boomtown.

"I would like very much to see the Formula One happening in Bahrain, not because I love the sport but because it will help the business," said Farooq Mohammed, a shop assistant in Manama's gold and jewelry market.

Raed Ali, an 18-year-old high school student said he admired the rulers for supporting the race.

"I love the F1 and I really want to go this year," Ali said. "It's become a national sport that our leaders love very much."

Protesters, meanwhile, urged international teams and auto racing fans not to reward the Gulf nation with their presence amid the Arab Spring's longest-running street clashes.

"Whoever will come to Bahrain for the F1 is not welcome," said Fatima Mohammed, a 19-year-old protester, who's been filming tear gas engulfed clashes between riot police and protesters. "Our government is brutal and run by a greedy family, who cares only about power and money, not its people."


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