Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Protests 'no threat' to Bahrain F1

Workers secure a billboard welcoming Formula One fans in English and Arabic along a highway near the Bahrain International Circuit (AP)
Workers secure a billboard welcoming Formula One fans in English and Arabic along a highway near the Bahrain International Circuit (AP)
Track preparations are under way at the Bahrain International Circuit (AP)

Organisers of Bahrain's Grand Prix have said sporadic protests against the race and violent unrest across the Gulf nation do not pose a threat to the premier international event in the kingdom.

Anti-government groups have stepped up protests against the race in attempts to embarrass authorities, but the demonstrations have been mostly isolated to areas that are hotbeds of opposition to the ruling royal family. Rights groups are also using the race to criticise Bahrain's arrests and other security crackdowns.

Zayed Alzayani, the chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit, said security measures in place this week at the circuit were no different than in past races. Police vehicles dotted the road leading to the circuit and there were several checkpoints before the track.

"We don't feel there is a direct threat to the track nor have we received any threats to the track," Alzayani said. "But we take everything into account. For us, we want to produce an event that is memorable for those who attended."

Alzayani insisted that Sunday's race, which is the biggest event in the Gulf nation and generates as much 220 million US dollars (£144 million), is a unifying force in the country and that a majority of Bahrainis were backing it. He said ticket sales were up 20% over last year with 25,000 fans expected at the race.

"One of the distinctions of our race, when compared to other races around the world, is you have total buy-in from the nation," he said. "The race has been endorsed by all members of society, including the opposition. If there are people who are against the race, that is fine. They are entitled to express their opinion within the confines of the law."

Bahrain has faced more than two years of violence between the Sunni-led government and majority Shiites seeking a greater political voice. The latest clashes occurred mostly in Shiite districts of the country, which are often scenes of unrest. Graffiti on walls said: "No F1," a reference to the Formula One event. "Don't race on our blood."

The race was postponed in 2011 after the Arab Spring-inspired uprising hit the country. The 2012 race was held, but was remembered more for massive protests before the event rather than Sebastian Vettel's victory. One man died last year near the scene of the demonstrations, but this year there has been less attention on the race from rights groups and the protests so far have been smaller and less violent.

There were clashes throughout Thursday between stone-throwing protesters and riot police firing bird shot and tear gas, said Yousef al-Muhafedha, acting president of the Bahrain Human Rights Centre. Thirteen people were detained and three were injured, he said.

The Ministry of Interior said seven people have been detained, including one person for a "car explosion" in Bahrain's new financial district. It provided no other details about the explosion. Four others were detained for stealing a car and burning it, and another for blocking a highway.

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